The Power of Knowledge in the Tempest

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Is Knowledge Power? Education, especially considering its strong connection to magic, is indicated to be a source of great power throughout the play The Tempest. The entire plot is based around Prospero’s wit and his cunning plan to seek revenge upon those who have wronged him. Were it not for his collection of magical books and his previous educational status as the duke of Milan, Prospero would have never had the means to escape the island and regain his position as ruler. Education is the underlying key factor that makes this play possible, and it is Prospero, as well as many other characters, who proves its importance. Prospero is the mighty protagonist, strong ruler, and powerful magician of this play. He is the center of importance, and it is his education and intelligence that drive many of his actions. The magic books which were given to him by Gonzalo provide a central basis for his power, thereby showing the importance of education, and specifically literature.

Without these books, Prospero would lack the resources to escape the island, as he couldn’t have done it on wit alone. While his inherent intelligence also played a key role, the fact that his brother was able to outsmart him in the first place proves how important the magic books were to his plan. At the same time, Prospero’s need to educate himself partially led to his brother’s betrayal, and could in that way be viewed in a negative light. Antonio’s selfish nature is, however, the main reason for this event, more so than Prospero’s hunger for knowledge. Gonzalo was the man who snuck these books to Prospero, perhaps knowing that the fate of Milan would ride on Prospero’s ability to become ruler again. This action shows a certain level of cunning and intelligence, and Gonzalo’s generosity and goodness of heart only provide more positive connections to education.

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Without Gonzalo, who gives this major source of learning to Prospero, there may be no story in the first place. While these books do play a positive key role in the play, the situation of Ariel’s enslavement and natural magical abilities put the educational factor into question. To some extent, Prospero is using his power to use and abuse servants of his. One of these servants is the spirit Ariel, who fulfills most of Prospero’s magical duties in order to gain freedom. While this may seem wrong, Ariel’s life would be far worse off if not for Prospero. The reason behind Ariel’s enslavement is that Prospero saved him from a tree that Sycorax, the evil witch, had bound him to.

Prospero, chastizing Ariel for wanting early release, reminds him: Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee, By help of her more potent ministers And in her most unmitigable rage, Into a cloven pine, within which rift Imprisoned thou didst painfully remain A dozen years; within which space she died And left thee there, where thou didst vent thy groans As fast as mill wheels strike. (1.2.277-284) Had Prospero not used his magic, presumably more powerful than Ariel’s, to free him, he would have stayed stuck and suffering in misery for many years to come, which is a far worse fate than serving Prospero. The fact that Ariel and Sycorax were both born with magic, while Prospero was self-taught through literature, points to the fact that education is more powerful than magic alone.

Knowledge gave Prsopero the ability to break the spell of a powerful witch and control a mystic spirit. While Prospero’s education gives him almost endless power, Caliban views his own education as a curse, and language only as a way to swear. This bitterness is, however, not rooted in the fact that he was given an education by Prospero, but in the fact that Prospero’s treatment of him is cruel. This was not always the case, though, and it became this way only after Caliban attempted to rape Prospero’s daughter. Prospero tells Caliban: I have used thee, Filth as thou art, with human care, and lodged thee In mine own cell till thou didst seek to violate The honor of my child. (1.2.351-354) Miranda continues shortly after, saying: I pitied thee, Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour One thing or other.

When thou didst not, savage, Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes With words that made them known. (1.2.358-363) This quote from Miranda shows the value that she puts on education as well, having been raised by Prospero. It also shows that Caliban was once treated with care, and lost that decency shown to him only after the attempted violation. Thereafter, language becomes a constant reminder of Caliban’s enslavement and powerlessness, which is why he despises it.

In contrast to the educated characters of the play, Trinculo and Stefano, the jester and butler, are drunken fools who provide comedic relief. Their lower ranking in society and therefore lower level of education are no coincidence. They both make complete idiots of themselves, especially by falling for the clothes in the tree, which even Caliban, who has been educated by Prospero, advises against. While intelligence and education play a key role in The Tempest, they can’t replace goodness and dignity as a whole, and can indeed be used for evil.

Antonio’s treacherous plot against Prospero, his own brother, is an instance in which education and wit are used selfishly. Antonio was able to outsmart his brother, who was in fact too wrapped up in his education at the time. Prospero explains to Miranda: In dignity, and for the liberal arts Without a parallel. Those being all my study, The government I cast upon my brother And to my state grew stranger, being transported And rapt in secret studies. (1.2.73-77) This proves that knowledge, as in all things, is not entirely good and pure. It can be used for deceit or be cause for neglect. Nonetheless, Antonio paid for his betrayal in the end, with the highly knowledgeable Prospero coming out on top.


Education may ride a fine line between right and wrong in some aspects, but it is a definite source of power and an important factor in the happy ending that ties this play together. Varying levels of knowledge and intelligence give the characters far more depth and personality as well as provide humor. The importance of education is arguably the basis for the entire plot, especially considering that Prospero’s power originates from his book collection. In Shakespeare’s final play, the value he places on education can be seen, and without this aspect, The Tempest would cease to exist as it does today.  

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The Power of Knowledge in the Tempest. (2021, Mar 22). Retrieved from