Rebellion is definitely an important theme throughout the play. Every character has committed an act of rebellion at some point in The Tempest. The subject of rebellion was very important to the audience at the time because of the risk of rebellion at the time against James I, who was the monarch.
There is a lot of rebelling against masters, as shown by both Ariel and Caliban. In act 1 scene 2, Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom from the magician’s service, but is declined, and Prospero reminds him of what he freed Ariel from (“I must once in a month recount what thou hast been, which thou forget’st.” I.ii.262-264). Prospero tells that the reason Sycorax imprisoned Ariel, was because the spirit refused to carry out her orders, rebelling against her authority. Caliban, on the other hand, displays his rebellious stripes by agreeing to serve Trinculo and Stephano instead of Prospero (“A plague upon the tyrant that I serve! I’ll bear him no more sticks, but follow thee, thou wondrous man.” II.2.162-164).
Sebastian and Antonio are first rebellious in Act I scene 2, when they refused to obey the Boatswains orders (“Hang cur, hang, you whoreson insolent noise-maker! We are less afraid to be drowned than thou art.” I.i.43-44). But in Act II scene 1, the two characters rebel against their king, Alonso, by planning to kill him (“Draw thy sword. One stroke shall free thee from the tribute which thou payest, and I the king shall love thee” II.i.292-294). But rebellion is not only present in these completely power-driven characters, but also in those characters who are powered by love, such as Miranda and Ferdinand.
Ferdinand, a prince, rebels against social order and agrees to serve Prospero in order to see Miranda (“To whom I am subdued, are but light to me, might I but through my prison once a day behold this maid” I.2.489-491). Not being raised in Milan in the modern society, Miranda is not aware of the social protocol at the time when it comes to love, by asking Ferdinand to marry her (“My husband then?” III.i.89). At the beginning of the scene, Miranda sees Ferdinand against Prospero’s wishes, (“He’s safe for these three hours” III.i.21).
Even before the first events of the play took place, there was a history of rebellion between Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan and his brother, Antonio, the man who usurped him. Before being betrayed by his brother, Prospero was a negligent Duke, spending all his spare time in his study practising magic, and rebelling against the rules of society (“And rapt in secret studies” I.ii.77). Antonio, on the other hand, rebelled against the wishes of his brother by taking advantage of the power Prospero had bestowed upon him, and usurped him of his dukedom (“in my false brother awakened an evil nature; and my trust like a good parent, did beget of him” I.ii.92-94 & “he needs be Absolute Milan” I.ii.109-110).
Gonzalo is the only character who can be debated in the discussion of rebellion. He does indeed show some rebellious streaks, though they a very subtle. For instance, in the first scene of play, Gonzalo vey politely disobeys the Boatswain’s command (“Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard” I.i.19). Then in his “Utopia” speech in Act 2 scene 1, Gonzalo describes a seemingly perfect world where “all men idle” and there is no “name of magistrate” (II.i.147-156). This is more rebellious to the Jacobean audience watching the play than it is towards the other characters in the play, because Gonzalo is describing a world without any higher social order that doesn’t sound apocalyptic. It was especially risky because the play was performed in front of the king, James I, who, at the time, was suffering some political trouble.
Even though each character is rebelling seemingly on their own, Prospero is really managing the rebellion. In Act 2 scene 1, Prospero uses his servant, Ariel, to purposely create particular conditions which favour this rebellious behaviour in order to prompt an act of sedition from Sebastian and Antonio. The King and the lords are purposely put to sleep by Ariel in order to offer Sebastian and Antonio an excellent opportunity to do the foul deed. But just as he creates, so Prospero prevents, and sabotages Sebastian and Antonio’s assassination plot by waking the King.
In conclusion, the theme of rebellion is an important part of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, because it helps shape the play in terms of power and manipulation.