Binary Construction in The Tempest

The Theme of Power in The Tempest


That The Tempest is based around the principle of binary construction has become something of an adage. The idea has been inundated with innumerable instances of intellectual iterations. This essay attempts to identify an inherent aspect of binary construct and the simultaneous but independent operation of that aspect in the very narrative of The Tempest : the aspect of power.

Whether it is Antonio’s usurpation of Prospero’s dukedom, Prospero’s displacement of Caliban, the Sebastian-Antonio plot or Stephano’s callous coup, power play is at the heart of The Tempest.

Binary constructions are also power structures where either of the binary elements enjoys a position of power over the other (Derrida, Maleki). This aspect of binary constructs get problematized further when one encounters them in a narrative that is pre-eminently concerned with power. Tempest, after all, begins with usurpation of Prospero’s throne and ends with his reclamation of the same.

Three broad sets of binary construction operate within the play: the constructions of Identity ( Colonizer/colonized, Master/slave, Male/female etc.); construction of Condition (nature/ Culture, absence/Presence, Freedom/servitude) and construction of Space ( Land/sea Terra firma/ Tempest ), as well as the civilized state of Milan and Naples / “strange island”.

Interestingly, these power-laden binary constructs inform the power struggle in the narrative itself. Any narrative involving a Master/slave, Colonizer/colonized dichotomy will involve some aspect of power. Therefore, this essay eschews these prominent binaries, on account of their ready accessibility to develop one’s argument.

In The Tempest however, even relatively power-neutral categories (vis-as-vis the narrative) like nature/Culture, Land/sea become the very medium in which power is exercised. The Land/sea (Terra firma/ Tempest) presents itself precisely at moments of power play: when Prospero is banished from the Terra firma to the tempestuous sea and when the sea is used by Prospero to raise a tempest so as to regain power. Thus, constructs of Spaces become areas where the centre of power is reconfigured in the narrative.

The nature and nurture of Miranda not only distinguishes her from Caliban but also from the princesses of Naples, a factor Ferdinand takes into account and which, for Prospero, is a step closer to marriage and Milan, nuptials and Naples. Similarly, power play of gender and presence binaries informs the patrimony-matrimony complex in the narrative.

These binary construction nevertheless destabilize at moments in the play and do so with simultaneous destabilization of power equation among its characters. The Ruler/ruled construct gets briefly destabilized in the face of the tempest when the boatswain flouts Alonzo’s authority. Likewise, Prospero’s identification with Caliban “This thing of Darkness I acknowledge mine” and the momentary collapse between the Self and the Other takes place at a moment when power is being renegotiated between the monarchs. However, the binaries aren’t transcended altogether but such momentary collapse of the categories reassert themselves when the flux of power, momentarily disturbed in the narrative is resettled. The cavalier behaviour of the boatswain is reversed to original when the power equation between him and the royals is reinstated on the land.


Post expiation, post reconciliation the binary constructs still remain, as do the actual power relation between characters. The principle of binary construction on which The Tempest is based is thus intimately linked to the idea of power and it operates on two levels : the level of the narrative and the level of the logos.





To cite this essay, copy the link below:





The Tempest, William Shakespeare ( Norton Critical Edition) Edited by Peter Hulme and William H ShermanThe Tempest,

The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare, Edited by Frank Kermode, Arden Shakespeare Paperbacks ( 1964)

Reading Derrida’s of Grammatology, Edited by Sean Gaston and Ian Malachlan, Continuum International Publishing

Prospero’s Lonely Magic , G Wilson Knight, The Tempest, William Shakespeare ( Norton Critical Edition)

Prospero’ s Wife, Stephen Orgel, The Tempest, William Shakespeare ( Norton Critical Edition)

The Blue Eyed Witch, Leah Marcus , The Tempest, William Shakespeare ( Norton Critical Edition)

Prospero and Caliban Peter Hulme, The Tempest, William Shakespeare ( Norton Critical Edition)

After “The Tempest:” Shakespeare, Postcoloniality, and Michelle Cliff’s New World Miranda, Thomas Cartelli, Contemporary Literature , Vol. 36, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), University of Wisconsin Press

Form and Disorder in The Tempest, Rose Abdelnour Zimbardo, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter, 1963), Oxford University Press

Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in “The Tempest”, Meredith Anne Skura, Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. 40, No. 1 (Spring, 1989) Oxford University Press





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