Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Human Desire to Obtain Power: A Look into The Tempest

Throughout dramatic writing, the character’s internal desire for power often creates a large amount of the drama involved within the work. Shakespeare’s dramatic works are no exception to this rule. Many of Shakespeare’s characters are drawn to immoral actions by this tempting appeal of power, including Claudius in Hamlet, Macbeth, and many more. In The Tempest, the theme of power takes on an extremely central role as many of the character’s become consumed by the idea of achieving influence in society. This play therefore uses the isolated setting of an island to highlight and intensify the depiction of this strong human desire-- the desire to obtain power at all costs. 

In 3.2, we see that Caliban has a problem with surrendering to the power of Prospero, and is willing to help Stefano and Trinculo in their plan to destroy him. Caliban says, “As I told thee before, I am subject to a tyrant, a sorcerer that by this cunning hath cheated me on the island” (3.2.40-41). Here, we see that the tension between master and servant arises when there is an abuse of power, and the servants feels like the master has overreached their boundaries. Caliban takes his master’s tyrannical actions as an invitation to rise against his power. He therefore believes that by obtaining power for himself, he will have more influence and control over the establishment of justice in society. 

While Caliban’s desire to achieve power is rooted in his vengeance towards Prospero, Antonio and Sebastian are characters who are simply consumed by the glory associated with achieving power. They want power for the mere sake of controlling the government of the island, and not having to bow down to Alonso and Gonzalo’s rule. There are essentially resistant characters who do not handle authority well. In 2.2, they immorally plot to kill Alonso and Gonzalo as a means to open the way for their own social climbing. In 2.1, Sebastians says, “But for your conscience” (in reference to Antonio’s immoral actions to gain more power). In response,  Antonio says, “Ay, sir, where lies that? If ‘twere a kibe/ ‘Twould put me to my slipper; but I feel not deity in my bosom...” (2.1.272-274). Here, we see that Antonio does not care about the moral implications of achieving political power, and feels no remorse for taking advantage of the power Prospero granted him. Instead he expresses his desire to obtain a greater influence in society at all costs. This example shows us that even those characters with power have a lust for more. Power therefore has an addictive component, and tends to blind the characters of their moral obligations to themselves and others. 

So far in The Tempest, power struggles have been extremely prevalent and morality has been absent in many of these power-hungry characters. While characters, such as Caliban, have some background motives driving them to immoral action, other characters merely allow themselves to become consumed by their internal desire to obtain power. By setting this play on an island, Shakespeare therefore creates the ideal, confined space in which the truth and tragedy of human desire can be exposed.


Anonymous said...

This is a great post. I've always loved the character of Caliban, for he's always seemed, to me, one of Shakespeare's best attempts at presenting a character who is truly sympathetic. I agree with what you said about the island being its own microcosm highlighting the relationships of power on a small scale. I think that Caliban represents anyone oppressed by a "majority"; it's clear that Caliban is ostracized on the island due to him being different from the white Prospero and Miranda. I, myself, have always thought that Caliban was driven to immoral actions while having the moral desire to achieve social equality; therefore, it's hard for me to classify him as a real villain in the play, despite some atrocious acts he performs. I feel like his overall intention is good, though he is not educated enough to control his primitive impulses. That's really his downfall, in my opinion.

Krystal Haight said...


Your blog post really captured my interest. I love how you explore the meaning behind the setting of the play. The fact that it takes place on a small island definitely influences our interpretation of the work. As you note in your post, “by setting this play on an island, Shakespeare therefore creates the ideal, confined space in which the truth and tragedy of human desire can be exposed.” I definitely agree with your statement. The small size of the island juxtaposes the monstrosity of a person’s desire to gain control and power.

I appreciate your analysis of power in this play. I definitely agree with your observation that Shakespeare’s characters never seem to be satisfied with their degree of power. Thus, they are always striving to gain more control. I also believe that Hamlet and Macbeth are good examples of these types of characters. However, I would also like to add Richard to the list. We cannot forget about how power-hungry this villain is throughout Richard III!

Jacey Lawler said...

I loved reading your post, Vanessa! Your ending line: “Shakespeare therefore creates the ideal, confined space in which the truth and tragedy of human desire can be exposed,” is spot on. This landscape is the perfect setting to illuminate the “truth and tragedy” of humans when it comes to the issue of power. The passage you looked at regarding conscience, Antonio, and Sebastian is intriguing. It made me recall Richard III, when the murderers are debating whether they should kill Clarence… “Some certain dregs of conscience are yet within me” says the Second Murderer 1.4.116-117 to his cohort. It seems that Shakespeare enjoys looking at whatever sliver of conscience remains in these characters of evil intent.

Cyrus Mulready said...

Your post does a great job of examining the various characters who lust after power in this play, Vanessa, and your remarks about the island as a setting for this drama makes me think of this place as a kind of social laboratory--I believe that's how Shakespeare thought of his setting, at least. The island is a kind of blank slate where characters behave, at times, without the constraints of social rules. Islands in literature and culture retain this character (see the recent television show Lost, for instance), something that may ultimately derive from how Shakespeare conceived of space.