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The Motif of Master and Servant Relationships in William Shakespeare´s "The Tempest"

Hausarbeit 2010 12 Seiten

Didaktik - Englisch - Literatur, Werke


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Motif of Master and Servant Relationships

3 Prospero & Ariel vs. Prospero & Caliban

4 Master Prospero - an Allegory for the Colonialists

5 Slave Caliban - an Allegory for the Natives

6 Conclusion

7 Works Cited
7.1 Print Media
7.2 Web Publication

1 Introduction

In 1492, Christopher Columbus first landed on the American continent. This event marks the beginning of its conquest by the Europeans. Some people celebrated the sailor as a hero; others assessed him as a power-hungry and dispiteous conqueror. Many indigenous people were oppressed, enslaved and eradicated by the following European settlers (Karras and McNeill 7).

By the time William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest in 1611, the English were accustomed to unimaginable stories about voyages abroad. Therefore, colonisation and exploration of the unknown islands continued to be frequent topics of conversation, heated-up by the many returning travellers. One of these stories circulated around the ‘Sea Adventure’, a flagship carrying Admiral George Somers and his crew that disappeared and was presumed lost at sea. Unbelievably, almost a full year later in the end of May, 1610, two pinnaces appeared at Jamestown carrying the staff and passengers from the ‘Sea Adventure’. The ship had - by force of a tempest - crashed on the island of Bermuda, which had - in contrast to its reputation as dangerous ‘Isle of Devils’ - a plenty of food and shelter. The stranded built their new sailing ships and completed their voyage to Jamestown (Müller, 343).

Seeing the similarities between this incident and the rough plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, one could assume that the author got inspired by these stories to write a play, which broaches the issue of the conquest of the New World.

In dealing with the recurrent motif of the master-servant relationship, I will prove that The Tempest can be perceived as a play about colonialism and subjugation. After an elaborate part about the motif, I will detail the traits of the main figures of The Tempest, which allegorize the people of the colonial era. Still, it’s not supposed to be a full characterisation and I will only name some facts due to the restricted number of pages, but it is much-needed to understand the individual relationships.

2 The Motif of Master and Servant Relationships

The Tempest contains a diversity of master and servant relationships. Almost every scene in the play depicts a correlation between a powerful and a succumbing figure. To name a few of them: Prospero is served by Caliban and Ariel. Alonso, the king, is attended on by his fealty, consisting of counsellors, noblemen, a butler and a jester. Another example can be found in 2.2: Caliban is determined to serve Stephano as his “subject” (Tmp. 2.2.127).

The motif first appears in the initial scene of act I. A tempest throws the crew into turmoil.

Fearing for their lives, the subordinates are ‘overstepping bounds’ by speaking rather impolitely to the nobles. The Boatswain has a rude dispute with Gonzalo (Tmp. 1.1.11-24). The nobles seem to be more upset by the way they are spoken to than by the fact that they could all die. This can be clearly seen in the following dialogue:

BOATSWAIN: [...] What cares these roarers for the / name of king? To cabin, silence! Trouble us not.

GONZALO: Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard.

BOATSWAIN: None that I more love than myself. You are a councillor. If / you can command these elements to silence and work the peace of the / present, we will not hand a rope more. Use your / authority. [...]- Cheerly, good hearts! - Out of our / way, I say.

(Tmp. 1.1.15-24).

With the characters behaving like that in such a perilous situation, the audience is beginning to discover their true colours. Furthermore, the figures are not addressing each other by their names, but by their social status:

MASTER: Boatswain! (Tmp. 1.1.1).

ANTONIO: Where is the Master, Boatswain? (Tmp. 1.1.11).

GONZALO: The king and prince at prayers. (Tmp. 1.1.49).

This scene shows the importance of the social status - even in life-threatening situations. It also reveals what the whole play is about: master and servant relationships. This paper mainly deals with the correlation between Prospero and his servants Ariel and Caliban. In respect of my interpretation of The Tempest as a play dealing with colonialism, Prospero represents the colonialist, who claims an already occupied island, while Ariel and Caliban symbolise the actual inhabitants of that island. Although both relationships each include one powerful and one suppressed person, they do still differ. This becomes particularly apparent because - throughout the play - the interactions between Prospero and Ariel emerge directly before or directly after interactions between Prospero and Caliban.

3 Prospero & Ariel vs. Prospero & Caliban

The relationship between Prospero and Ariel is one of a master and a servant. Although Ariel is asking for his1 freedom, which I’ll address later, he accepts his status as a servant and - mainly without opposition - does what he is told to:

ARIEL: All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail! I come / To answer thy best pleasure, be ‘t to fly, / To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride / On the curled clouds. To thy strong bidding, task / Ariel and all his quality.” (Tmp. 1.2.189-93).

This extract suggests that the relationship is quite positive. Ariel uses beneficial adjectives (“great”, “grave”) to describe Prospero and affirms his greatness. He seems to be loyal and acts like a submissive servant. He calls Prospero “master” (Tmp. 1.2.296, 4.1.34), which also shows the acceptance ofhis status.

In a relationship between master and servant it is possible that both parties in some way benefit. Sometimes servants do their work and expect to get something in return. Still it’s important to realise that the master has the power and is therefore feared by the inferior. Ariel has a goal and thus works hard and diligently.

PROSPERO: What is ‘t thou canst demand?

ARIEL: My liberty. (Tmp.1.2.245).

Prospero seems to have already promised Ariel his freedom without giving an exact date to fulfil this condition:

ARIEL: Since thou dost give me pains, / Let me remember thee what thou hast promised, / Which is not yet performed me.” (Tmp. 1.2.242-44).

Both Ariel and Caliban know that they can be easily destroyed by Prospero’s daunting powers for not doing what they are expected to. Hence, fear plays a major role. To reaffirm his powers, Prospero threatens Ariel: “Thou liest, malignant thing!” (Tmp. 1.2.257). This is the only scene in Shakespeare’s play, in which the otherwise friendly tone (“My brave spirit!” 1.2.206, “My industrious servant!” 4.1.33, “my bird” 4.1.186) vanishes. Although Prospero promised to set him free (Tmp. 1.2.242-44), he reacts quite harsh when Ariel brings it up. He still needs the spirit to fulfil his plans, therefore reminds Ariel, how he released him from Sycorax’ spell (Tmp. 1.2.280f), and accuses him as being ungrateful. Furthermore Prospero threatens his servant: “If thou more murmur’st, I will rend an oak / And peg thee in his knotty entrails till / Thou hast howled away twelve winters.” (Tmp. 1.2.296-98).

Due to his debt, Ariel is pressured to do what he is asked to, or face a horrible chastisement. This is the only scene in the play, where the relationship between Prospero and Ariel turns into one between master and slave. Prospero even calls the spirit “slave” (Tmp. 1.2.272) to straighten the proportion of power out.

Prospero further seems to think, that he has sole power over Ariel, because he has rescued him.

He did not have to free the spirit from the tree, but doing so, he believes to have the right to give Ariel commands. Prospero seems to advance the view that one hand washes the other. He also acts upon that towards Caliban, which I will go into later.

There are several passages in the play that show the special relationship between Ariel and Prospero:

ARIEL: Do you love me, master, no?

PROSPERO: Dearly my delicate Ariel. (Tmp. 4.1.48-49).

While I first thought that Prospero might act in a calculating way to enforce Ariel’s willingness, I wasn’t so sure about that, when I read the last act: Prospero said that he would miss his servant, once he was free (Tmp. 5.1.96). I can imagine that he is somehow kind of proud, because - in contrast to Caliban - Ariel accepted the knowledge and education. Nevertheless one needs to take into consideration that it’s the relationship between a master and a servant. It might look harmonious at first sight, but it’s still one between an oppressor and an underdog. This can be proved by the fact that Ariel defies his master “once in a month” (Tmp. 1.2.264). Still, being rude, like Caliban, wouldn’t take Ariel any far. He has the expectation of freedom and is therefore nice and willing to do what he is told to. Otherwise Prospero could take his promise back and treat him like Caliban.

While the relationship between Prospero and Ariel is generally positive, Prospero and Caliban’s is quite a negative one. It’s rather a relationship between master and slave. This can be clearly seen in the way Prospero is talking to and treats Caliban. He only issues commands and calls Caliban in disrespectful ways, which show his aversion:

PROSPERO: Hag-seed,hence! (Tmp. 1.2.368).

Thoumost lying slave, [...]. (Tmp. 1.2.347).

This misshapen knave, / [...], this demi-devil - / for he’s a bastard one. (Tmp. 5.1.271-75).

In contrast to Ariel, Caliban has no expectations from Prospero. He is not expecting to get his island back or to be his own master. This gets obvious in 2.2, when Caliban meets Trinculo and Stephano. Without knowing these two any further, he immediately offers to be their servant. Hating Prospero for being his master, Caliban suddenly worships Stephano as a god and even wants to kiss his feet (Tmp. 2.2.124), which shows his pathetic state. At the same time he sings about having “a new master”, he chants about “freedom” (Tmp. 2.2.160-161). Maybe he isn’t even able to be autonomic.

Caliban clearly feels oppressed and has an extreme hatred for Prospero. Throughout the play, he curses his master and desires his decease:


1 Due to the fact, that the gender of Ariel is not clarified in The Tempest, for reasons of clarity in this paper, I masculinised Ariel.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
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Institution / Hochschule
Universität Potsdam – Anglistik & Amerikanistik
Shakespeare The Tempest Motif Master & Servant Relationships



Titel: The Motif of Master and Servant Relationships in William Shakespeare´s "The Tempest"