In his play The Tempest, William Shakespeare explores the ideas of wealth and status, and the illusion of higher ranking when certain types of clothing are worn. Often, people assume another’s rank in society by looking at the condition, fitting, and brand of apparel that one is wearing. It is usually others who judge one and conclude one’s hierarchy, but in the play, the characters grant themselves higher, lower, or no ranking based on their own attire they obtain.
Shakespeare utilizes the motif of clothing to show how wealth and status are associated with the type of clothing worn. The motif exists in the play to represent the idea of false concept, where the characters believe they have more power and higher status then they actually do based on what they’re wearing.
Prospero’s cloak represents his different personas throughout the play and serves as a source of his power. Prospero relies on his cloak and books to grant him with his powers.
But, when he removes his cloak, he becomes a powerless father instead. When finally admitting to his daughter of their true past, he tells Miranda, “I should inform thee father. Lend thy hand,/ And pluck my magic garment from me” (I.ii 27-30). Prospero had a former habit of prioritizing his drive to regain position as Duke of Milan in front of being the best father he can be for his daughter, but his removal of his cloak symbolizes his attempt at being a better father.
He eliminates all foundations of his supernatural control, and focuses entirely on his daughter. It is also evident how important clothes are to Prospero, when he reveals his gratitude to Gonzalo for presenting him with “Rich garments” (I.ii 194).
Since he lost his place as Duke of Milan, Prospero has been forced to wear clothes for regular middle class citizens, his cloak functioning as his only obvious representation as having higher power. But, when Prospero regains his status back as Duke again, instantly he says “Not one of them /That yet looks on me, or would know me—Ariel /Fetch me the hat and rapier in my cell: /I will discase me, and myself present /As I was sometime Milan” (V.i 89-94). Prospero believes that no one will recognize him as the Duke of Milan unless he is wearing the clothes that once did as ruler, proving his stereotypical view on the message that the type of clothing worn sends. Although he tries to make himself an equal when he gives up his magical powers and asks for forgiveness, his true characteristics still shine through and reveal his opinion on the connection between status and clothing. Prospero’s ego and assumption that since he wears a magical cloak and has supernatural powers that others don’t, causes him to believe he has more control then he really does.
Antonio’s apparel represents the benefits that accompany higher power. When Antonio overthrows his brother and takes his place as Duke of Milan, he realizes the reimbursement he is granted also. When Antonio tries to convince Sebastian into killing Alonso and taking his place as king, he reminds him, “And look how well my garments sit upon me,/ Much feater than before” (II.i 312-314) The clothes fitting Antonio better as king then as only a peasant portrays his postulation that his physical appearance also grants him more power. He believes that when people see him dressed well, they will think of him as on a higher status. This proves to be important to Antonio, improved necessities, such as wardrobe, being one of the reasons he had decided to steal his brother’s place as king initially. The persuasion of having well fitted clothes even proves to sway Sebastian’s decision into killing Alonso, causing him to agree to it. When Gonzalo attempts to influence Antonio into believing that when their clothes were almost ruined in the shipwreck, they have now retained their freshness and are basically good as new because they are on the island, Antonio ridicules the idea. He replies, “If but one of [Gonzalo’s] pockets could speak, would it not say he lies?” (II.i 70-71). Now that Antonio’s surrounded by rich supplies, his expectations are exceedingly
higher, the condition of clothing being one of them. He refuses to believe that symbolically the men’s clothes could have redeemed themselves, and continues to believe that the clothes are dirty. His status in society interferes with his opinion on everyday provisions.
Gonzalo’s involvement with garments characterizes him as an optimistic and represents the benevolent personality he obtains compared to others because of his stable status in society. Throughout the play, Shakespeare makes it plain to the reader that Gonzalo is essentially the only character who has no alterior motives and is truly a caring person. When Prospero and Miranda were first stranded on the island, “Gonzalo, /… gave [them] out of his goodness, with /Rich garments, linens, stuffs, and other necessities” (I.ii 189-194). His giving of clothing and provisions distinguishes Gonzalo as compassionate and proves he puts others in front of himself, a quality many other characters in the book don’t obtain. Contrasted to the other characters in the play, Gonzalo is perceived as the only altruistic being, possibly because of his steady ranking as a lord, and his lack of care for gaining or losing power.
Also, due to an incident where king Alonso of Naples believed his son was dead and blamed himself because of wedding his daughter so far away, Prospero’s brother and Alonso’s brother both instigate the situation and make Alonso more upset. Gonzalo, being Alonso’s friend and lord, attempts to enlighten the circumstances. He states, “That our garments, being, as they were, /drenched in the sea, hold notwithstanding their freshness /and glosses” (II.i 67-70). He tries to tell the men that although they have been through hardships, they have redeemed themselves, just as their clothes have. His quote also relates to the fact that although him, Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio all wear different types of clothing due to their varying social rank, all of their clothes were ruined and were compensated for; therefore, connecting them all and causing the condition of their clothing to be equal. Throughout the play, Gonzalo shows no evidence of having care for increasing in power or if it would bother him if he lost power, and this seems to make him the only one who is sanguine about circumstances and the only one who does not act selfish.
Shakespeare utilizes the motif of clothing in the play to reveal the association between wealth and status, and to represent the idea of false concept. Prospero’s relationship with clothing symbolizes his different aspects as a magician and a father. Antonio’s position as Duke of Milan benefits him with better clothing, and causes him to believes his physical appearance affects other people’s opinion on how much power he obtains. Gonzalo is a very optimistic man, and his correlation with clothing proves that.