Theme of usurpation in The Tempest

Question: Discuss Shakespeare’s treatment of the theme of usurpation in The Tempest.


The theme of usurpation is one of the major issues in “The Tempest” composed by the master playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The play shows how Prospero was dethroned and was sent into exile by his evil-minded brother, Antonio. Again, coming to the strange island, Prospero himself turns into a usurper. Thus, the play gives the impression that perhaps man by nature is a usurper, although Prospero justifies his actions in various ways.

Negligence for duty

In The Tempest, Prospero tells her daughter Miranda how his brother Antonio usurped his dukedom. He says that he was once the Duke of Milan which is one of the most important Dukedoms in Italy. However, he was highly interested in acquiring magical skills. This is why he gave the charge of the Dukedom to his brother Antonio. As Prospero says;

“The government I cast upon my brother

And to my state grew stranger, being transported

And rapt in secret studies”.

Promotion and suspension of officers

Antonio proved to be false. While Prospero became engrossed in his research in magic, Antonio began to plot against Prospero with a view to serving his own interest. Antonio began to sack some courtiers while promoting some others. He thus possessed both “officer and office”. Antonio then plotted with Alonso, the King of Naples, to overthrow Prospero. Once at midnight Antonio opened the city gate of Milan and let the followers of Alonso. They captured Prospero. They dared not kill him because of his popularity. Instead, they placed Prospero and Miranda on a tiny boat bound to a remote island.

Selfishness and superiority of the powerful

On Strange Island, Prospero completes his magic and begins to control Caliban and Ariel through his magical power. After arriving on the island, Prospero found Caliban, almost animal in appearance. Prospero enslaved Caliban and forced him to work for him. On the other hand, Caliban considers himself a native of the island. He begins to think that Prospero is a colonialist figure who has captured his land. He has developed a rebellious spirit. He curses Prospero and works for him only when he is to escape from the punishment. Once, Caliban attempted to rape Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. This is why Miranda hates Caliban and she is also afraid of him. Thus when Prospero took the name of Caliban, Miranda called him a villain. Nevertheless, Prospero’s survival on the island depends heavily on Caliban, as he states:

“We cannot miss him. He does make our fire,

Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices

That profit us.”

Thus Prospero has subjugated Caliban for his own interest.

By the name of civilization

The relation between Prospero and Caliban exemplifies the issues of subversion behind the ideology put forth by the colonists. For example, when Caliban says, “This island mine, by Sycorax, my mother, / which thou tak’st from me…”, we see Prospero as the usurper on the island, who came to the island, making Caliban his slave. Caliban’s experience is a typical example of what happens to any race subjugated to colonization. Again, when Prospero says that Caliban is “A devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nature can never stick’, we find that he is asserting the white man’s burden’ as a civilizer of the world. However, we also find that his view of nature is a limited one. He has trained Caliban as a slave, he does not give him a real education as he gives it to Miranda. It is true that Caliban is vulnerable to lust and treachery which are fundamental aspects of raw nature and are parts of humanity.

Power hunting tendency

In the play, we find two other attempts at usurpation. Antonio and Sebastian plan to kill Alonso and Gonzalo so that Sebastian may be the king of Naples. Antonio reveals that he feels no guilt overthrowing his brother Prospero because it is the power that matters. And Sebastian is ready to act in this direction, as he says;

As thou got’st Milan,

I’ll come by Naples. Draw thy sword, One stroke

Shall free thee from the tribute which thou payest,

And the king shall love thee.

Thus, Sebastian begins to imagine himself as the king of Naples although all of them are now in the dangerous zone of the strange island. However, their conspiracy is dismissed by Ariel who awakes Alonso and Gonzalo, and thus Alonso and Gonzalo are saved from the heinous attack of Antonio and Sebastian.


Finally, it is translucent that there always run hate and anger between the usurper and the usurped. It is Shakespeare who has struggled life-long to scatter the message that how human beings can be happy in this short materialistic world.

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SR Sarker
SR Sarker
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