The Fierce and Mighty Sea; The Dramatic Function of the Powerful and Ever Present Ocean in The Tempest

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Images of the fierce and powerful sea are prevalent throughout Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The play opens on a terrible storm at sea and all of the ensuing action takes place on an island that, by definition, is surrounded by ocean on all sides. The sea’s menacing force is evident right from the start of the first act, when the Boatswain incongruously challenges Gonzalo to “use [his] authority” against the squall (I.i.18) . By pointing out that no one – not even a royal councilor – has power over the sea, the Boatswain highlights the sea’s irresistible strength. Even the language the characters use to describe the ocean alludes to its threatening prowess. In Act II, scene I (114) Francisco describes Ferdinand’s swim to shore by saying that he “beat the surges . . .whose enmity he flung aside [in order to stay above the] contentious waves.” By personifying the sea as a malevolent adversary Francisco is testifying to it’s overwhelming power. In light of these, and other descriptions, the sea appears to be a symbol of nature’s potent and vicious power.

Because of its prevalence and power, the sea constantly reminds the characters and audience that man is helpless and insignificant in the eyes of nature. Throughout The Tempest extensive ocean imagery speaks to the vulnerability of man, regardless of his or her position in society. Yet, there is no point in the play when the ocean actually harms someone. In fact, one of the individuals shipwrecked in the storm of scene one notes that his clothes seem, “rather new-dyed than stained with salt water.” (II.i.62; Gonzalo) This observation raises some questions about the dramatic function of the ocean. After all, if the vision of a fierce sea is meant to illustrate man’s weakness why doesn’t it cause any man physical harm? To answer this question, and fully understand the role of the sea in The Tempest we must look to the passage in Act I, scene ii where Ariel sings to Ferdinand of his drowned father. The song, which begins “Full fathom five”, speaks of a man killed at sea; even though the audience knows that the man being described is still alive. By analyzing this passage in light of the plays actual events we come to see that the sea is an instrument of change and rebirth rather than death. Specifically, by making the characters aware of their own insignificance the mighty sea forces them to reevaluate their lives. In this light the “sea-change” Ariel sings of can be understood as a rebirth rather than a gruesome death.

Throughout the play the ocean serves as a testament to peoples vulnerability. From the first scene the audience is clearly shown that man’s greatest powers are futile in the face of nature’s might. Aboard the distressed ship are two of the most powerful members of society; the King of Naples and the Duke of Milan, Alonzo and Antonio respectively. But it does not take long for the audience to see that all of their ?power’ is meaningless. On line 15 of Act I, scene i the Boatswain chastises Alonzo and Antonio for pestering him during the sea storm. “When the sea is. Hence! What cares these roarers for the name of king?” The Boatswain knows that angry waves have no sense of a person’s rank or station. By making this observation the Boatswain is pointing out the futility of society’s preoccupation with status and position. As per the Boatswains warning, when the boat splits at the end of the scene Alonzo and Antonio end up in the sea just like everyone else on board the ship.

As it turns out, the act one shipwreck that strands Alonzo, Antonio, and the rest of the ship’s passengers is not an accident. The audience soon learns that Prospero, who inhabits the barren island the survivors find themselves on, has engineered the entire storm and the ensuing shipwreck. Prospero is Antonio’s older brother, and therefore the rightful Duke of Milan. Antonio robbed Prospero of his dukedom (with the help of Alonzo) twelve years before the start of the play, by setting him out to sea whence he eventually came to the island. Later in the play, while searching for his son Ferdinand, Alonzo complains that, “the sea mocks our frustrate search on land.” Again the sea is personified as a malicious enemy, daring ridicule the king’s desperate search for his only son. Once more the audience is shown that anyone, even the king of Naples is insignificant when compared to the fierce sea.

But what of Prospero’s relation to the sea? After all, how can the ocean make Prospero feel helpless and unimportant if he can control it? To see that Prospero is as subject to the will of the sea as any of the men who were on the ship we need only to look at his own description of his journey to the island. “They prepared a rotten carcass of a butt . . . [and] there they hoist us to cry to th’ sea that roared to us, ” he explains to his daughter (I.ii.145). His story presents the audience with an image of a totally helpless man, holding his baby and crying as he drifts on a small craft in the middle of the vast and uncaring sea. Just as pitiable is Prospero’s remembrance of having, “decked the sea with drops full salt.” What could be more futile than crying into the ocean? These lines prove that there is no one in The Tempest who is not rendered helpless by the fierce sea.

While everyone in the play is subject to the sea’s vicious power, there is not a single character who is harmed by the ocean’s waves. We can be certain of this since Ariel, Prospero’s spirit/nymph attendant, assures his master that, “not a hair perished” in the ship wreck. Why then is it so important that the characters recognize their insignificance in comparison with the vast ocean? Why is there so much sea imagery is it does nothing to further the plot? We can answer these questions, and better understand the meaning of the play, by looking at Ariel’s song to Ferdinand in Act I, Scene ii. This key passage is sung to Ferdinand as he wonders about the island looking for his father Alonzo, who Ferdinand assumes is dead.


Full fathom five thy father lies.

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: (I.ii.400)

Immediately after hearing this song Ferdinand assumes that he has heard the tale of his father’s death, “the ditty does remember my drowned father.” But the audience had already been told that no one was harmed in the shipwreck. In fact, the next scene opens with Alonzo searching the island for Ferdinand. What then is the purpose of this song? To figure that out we must look more closely at the song itself and the story of what happens to Alonzo while he is on the island.

The first three lines of “full fathom five” definitely suggest the image of a person who has drowned in the ocean, and whose body has subsequently been taken over by the creatures of the sea. But since we know that Alonzo is still alive we must continue to look at the passage in order to see if any other interpretation is logical. Line four seems to suggest that Alonzo in fact alive, since there is, “nothing of him that doth fade.” In light of this interpretation the song seems to be about some sort of fundamental change, as described in likes five and six. Unfortunately this interpretation leaves two important questions unanswered; What is the nature of the “sea change?” and why is the ocean the central image of Ariel’s song? To answer these questions we need only look at Alonzo’s story.

Everything we know about Alonzo before he was on the island is either from what the audience hears of Prospero’s story or what they see of him in the storm scene of Act I. What we know from Prospero is that Alonzo was part of the Antonio’s plot to rob Prospero of his dukedom. What we see in scene i is that Alonzo expects to be treated like a king, even while a raging tempest threatens the lives of everybody around him. Both accounts suggest that Alonzo is a power hungry villain who values position and deference above all else. Yet, as the play goes on our opinion of Alonzo changes a great deal. As he searches the island for his son, he repeatedly wishes that he could give his own life in return for that of his son. This implies that he has come to understand the value of family over position. Similarly, when Alonzo finally see Prospero he immediately promises to return his dukedom to him. Once again showing the audience that Alonzo is not the evil man that he once was. In light of this tale it is suddenly quite easy to answer the questions raised by “full fathom five.” The “sea-change” Ariel sings about refers to Alonzo transformation from a tyrant fixated on power to a loving father and honest man. The sea is the central image of the song, because only after the sea forced him to acknowledge his own insignificance and helplessness was Alonzo able to reinvent himself. The implication is that we must be aware of our own vulnerability in order to have a clear understanding of who we are. In The Tempest the sea is what provides the characters with this sense of helplessness and insignificance. In fact this theme of “sea-change” touches many of the characters in this romance.

Antonio’s sees him change from a confident duke into a humbled subject and though it is different it is just another example of Alonzo’s sea change. Specifically, Antonio changes because he cannot take the pressure that is the sea-situation has created. Antonio tries to murder Alonzo, proving that he cannot be trusted and that he is a poor leader. It is because he did not successfully endure the situation the sea put him in the audience feels that it is just for him to loose the dukedom to Prospero by the end of the play. Prospero himself undergoes a change, but his is quite different than that of his brother.

Antonio was able to take power from Prospero, because Prospero was more concerned with studying than with ruling. He himself says, “My library, was dukedom large enough,” when he is telling his daughter about his life in Milan (I.ii.109). The Prospero that we see in The Tempest is an excellent ruler who seems to be aware of everything that goes on in his realm. When Ariel asks about his freedom in Act II, Prospero uses just the right mixture of pleading and intimidates to make sure he stays focused on the task at hand. This type of rhetoric is clearly a political skill. And later when Prospero’s malevolent servant leads a plot to murder him, Prospero has everything in hand. He is able to ensure that the plot fails and he punishes the offenders. Finally, in Act V Prospero promises that he shall bury his book, “certain fathoms in the earth, and deeper than did ever plummet sound.” This seems to be a total rejection of the life he lived when he ruled Milan. The implication is that Prospero is now going home to be a fain, yet effective ruler. Once again, this is a change that is possible only because Prospero was forced to withstand the force of the sea and recognize his own faults and weaknesses. In other words, being tossed by the sea and stranded on a barren island gave Prospero a chance to see and change everything he had done wrong when he was the Duke of Milan.

In The Tempest the sea functions as a catalyst for personal re-evaluation, forcing people to look past their place in society and focus on who they are and what is truly important. Gonzalo, a councilor of Naples, does the best job of relating to the audience the impact of the sea, and the ensuing sea-changes when he notes that in one sea voyage,

“Ferdinand . . . found a wife

Where he himself was lost; Prospero his dukedom

In a poor isle, and all of us ourselves,

When no man was his own (V.i.213)

The last part of this passage implies that even those characters not closely followed by the story, were profoundly changed by their sea experience.

In the final lines of Act V, scene I Prospero promises that they will ride “calm seas” all the way to Naples. This implies that the role of the sea as a catalyst for personal realization is no longer necessary, and that is indeed the case. This is true because all of the main characters have had to face the force of the sea and they have all proven themselves worthy leaders or unworthy villains ­ no further judgments need to be made. Because of this the sea no longer needs to remind the characters and the audience of man’s insignificance, it need no longer be threatening. Therefore Prospero’s promise may be realized, and all of the ships passengers may return to Naples without further incident, and the audience may go home knowing that all of the crises of the sea and the island have indeed been resolved.

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