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Use of Contrast in Act I of The Tempest

William Shakespeare used many different writing devices when he wrote his plays. In Act I of The Tempest, the use of contrasts between characters, setting, and ideas were often used to develop the story, and more importantly, the messages that Shakespeare wished to portray by the play.

One good example was how some characters in the first act had their counterparts. Ariel had Caliban, and Gonzalo had Ferdinand. The relationship between Ariel and Caliban could clearly be seen throughout Act I, scene II. Ariel was the “airy spirit” that could assume different shapes, such as the lightning flames seen on the ship (Shakespeare 31), and who had quickness, lightness, grace, and total control over his actions. On the other hand, Caliban who represented the body, couldn’t control his actions and thus made him the opposite of Ariel. He even tried to rape Miranda once but was stopped by Prospero in the process. In fact, it might even be safe to say that Caliban was anti-Ariel, being slow, stupid, and lazy.

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Gonzalo and Ferdinand were also contrasted in this act. In Act I, scene I lines 28-33, Gonzalo made fun of the boatswain by saying that he didn’t look like the type to drown, instead, he resembled more of the type to be hanged. Thus implying that no one on the ship would drown. This gesture by Gonzalo showed that he was an optimistic person. On the other hand, after landing on the island in Act I, scene ii, Ferdinand grew worried about his father and immediately presumed he was dead. He even went as far as saying that he was now the new King of Naples (Shakespeare 45). Therefore, one can see that Ferdinand did not have a positive outlook and wasn’t as optimistic as Gonzalo. From the contrasts between Ariel – Caliban, and Gonzalo – Ferdinand, one develops a character profile of the four and starts to recognize some ideas that Shakespeare was trying to bring about in The Tempest.

The contrast between the settings was also present in Act I. The tempest at the beginning of the play caused violent winds and total confusion aboard the ship. This chaos disturbed Shakespeare’s Social Order. The boatswain, not the King, was giving out orders to the people, while the King and his son were praying below. Thus, the whole Social Order was inverted. However, when the ship landed on the island, the setting of the play changed from the terrifying storm to the delightfulness of the island. In turn, the Social Order was also put back to its original state by the introduction of Prospero and his ‘commoners’ Ariel and Caliban. The reader can create a kind of atmosphere from this contrast.

Recall that in Act I, Scene II, Shakespeare offered a parallel, or at least a contrast, in the way Miranda and Caliban were educated and how they used their education. Whereas education had beneficial effects on Miranda’s high nature, its effects on Caliban’s low nature were extremely harmful. Prospero took great pains in order to educate his daughter:

Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit
Than other princesse can, that have more time
For vanier hours, and tutors not so careful. (Shakespeare 29)

Miranda benefitted greatly from her education because she had a noble nature with which to begin. She respected her father for whom he was and obeyed him as commanded. Contrasted by Caliban, whose main benefit from learning was that he became an expert at cursing. Education had only made him into a malcontent creature who always whined about his low position. He may have been born to serve, but learning had made him hate serving. The contrast between these two character’s education helped Shakespeare to convey his idea of education between high class and low-class individuals.

Shakespeare intelligently used different contrasts in Act I to display characters, setting and ideas. These contrasts helped to unify the act and make the reader more aware of what they were truly reading, and that is, of course, a work of art.

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Use of Contrast in Act I of The Tempest. (2021, Mar 03). Retrieved July 7, 2021, from