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Similarities and differences in motifs and themes between Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals.”

The essay would compare and contrast the motifs and patterns used in Shakespeare's The Tempest and Montaigne's "Of Cannibals." Both authors have a unique way of expressing and explaining their points of view. The Tempest is one of William Shakespeare's most important works; the plot is built on different topics and symbols that convey details about the writer's thoughts. The Tempest is, in several ways, Shakespeare's answer to Montaigne's essay "Of Cannibals." Shakespeare agrees with Montaigne's views in "Of Cannibals," where the parallels in their views are shown by how both writers depict cannibals (Shakespeare 29). The Tempest by Shakespeare and “Of Cannibals’ by Montaigne debate very different, yet, related topics. In “Of Cannibals’, the author discusses various cultural norms and human behaviors that are observed in the Brazilians, Indians, and the Europeans while also associating it to the relation of power between the individuals of several islands in The Tempest (Dupeyron 45). Just the same way it is natural for human to be power-hungry, it is natural in the culture of Brazilians to sacrifice and eat the flesh and meat of their enemies. The play by Shakespeare introduces the reader to the impression of human’s natural instinct to own something (Rodgers 430). The idea of being hungry for power is viewed as natural element creatures and humans within The Tempest. The excerpt “Of Cannibals” by Montaigne discusses the power aspect but in a different sense. Montaigne’s essay discusses power through human cannibalism and execution (Dupeyron 36). The Brazilian-Indians are told to describe the element of cannibalism in their culture as a symbol of reign over enemies. They capture the culture of conquering another by eating the opponents’ dead flesh. However, Europeans execute living individuals grounding it on political arrangements. From the basic information, it is clear the excerpt “Of Cannibals” by Michel de Montaigne, and the play The Tempest by William Shakespeare are complements to each other, that is, they are alike in their motifs and themes (Dupeyron 23). In other words, Shakespeare engages with Montaigne’s work in several methods.

Most noticeably, Shakespeare’s play extracts the development of plot, setting, and characters from ‘Of Cannibals” by Montaigne. The characterization of Caliban and Ariel in The Tempest is significant in relation to Montaigne’s essay (Dupeyron 22). Both writings assess the correlation between modern civilization and human personality. Montaigne’s cannibals’ glorification contrasts glaringly with Shakespeare’s bestial Caliban indifferent description, whose name lightly hides the inspiration of Montaigne’s play (Rodgers 430). Whereas cannibals in Montaigne’s essay are depicted as products of the nature in a conventional approach and lacking disingenuousness, Shakespeare’s cannibal seems to be crude, feeble, and inane (Shakespeare 43). Yet, The Tempest’s intricacy bases in its significant indistinctness.

In “Of Cannibals”, the argument is between the Europeans and the Brazilian Indians to determine the ones with more civilized approach towards dealing with humankind (Rodgers 429). The aspect of Montaigne’s essay relates to Shakespeare’s play amusing feature. In The Tempest, the comical aspect is also identified where the most powerful beings such as spirits are under control of the less powerful creatures (Dupeyron 41). In the essay, it is clear to the reader that despite cannibalism being unacceptable in today’s society, the fact is Brazilian-Indians can contradict the funny way the Europeans handle individuals by killing them based of their cultural beliefs.


Both Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals” essay and Shakespeare’s play The Tempest explore the themes of an artificial and a natural world. Furthermore, Shakespeare and Montaigne both express their different perceptions of cannibals. Montaigne depicts the more natural type of cannibal which is dictated by nature (Shakespeare 15). Montaigne view cannibals as savages. He says that “It is no lie to say that these men are indeed savages—by our standards; for either they must be, or we must be: there is a great gulf between their souls and ours (Rodgers 43).” According to him, it would be impossible to bridge the gap between the soul of a European and that of a cannibal. The point is shown when he concludes that there is still “an amazing gulf” seen amid the personality of the cannibals and that of their own (the Europeans). It is a belief in this gap that ultimately leads to his dehumanization of the cannibals (Dupeyron 40). The Europeans see the culture of the cannibals as subhuman, as compared to theirs, which is entirely human. The fact that Montaigne portrays the souls of the cannibals and that of the European as having permanent differences is a clear indication that he presents cannibals as having a dehumanized nature (Dupeyron 20). Again, Montaigne has a belief cannibals are guided by nature which is opposite to individuals who are consciously controlled. In his play, he states “Now, to return to my subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country” (Rodgers 432). “As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place where we live (Rodgers 430).”

In Shakespeare’s narrative, it is contrary to Montaigne’s view on cannibalism. Shakespeare has a more harsh perception of Cannibal, where he has more brutal idea of it as he reveals it through Prospero and Caliban’s relationship. In The Tempest play, Caliban is portrayed as a cannibal (Shakespeare 32). “Cannibal” can also be pronounced “Caliban” if the letters are switched, and the ‘n’ is removed, it is almost an anagram. Shakespeare’s act of portraying brutish Caliban, whose identity thinly veils the influence of Montaigne’s essay shows a direct attack against the form of idealizing nature that Montaigne is so fond of in his article (Shakespeare 19). In Shakespeare’s play, cannibalism seems to be as pathetic, vulgar, and crass as any person can be revealed (Shakespeare 31). Additionally, the complexity of The Tempest is based on the essential ambiguity of “Of Cannibals.” The ambiguity originates from the juxtaposition of the pathetic and brutish character of Caliban with the sympathetic and sprightly character of Ariel (Shakespeare 25). Both Ariel and Caliban are inhabitants of the Island, and thus can be thought of in regards to Montaigne’s cannibals. Through analyzing these two significant characters (Ariel and Caliban) in relation to Prospero, it is easy to determine how The Tempest is an artwork responding to and poses a challenge to Montaigne’s essay (Shakespeare 22). Lying on the grounds of Shakespeare’s response to “Of Cannibals” is a different human nature conception and the degree to which modern civilization suppresses it.


In “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare, the fanatical idea of power is significantly defined as a theme which also highly relates to Montaigne’s essay on the way power beings handle challenging situations. In the article, Montaigne reveals the initial human instinct of killing anything that is the source of a problem. The Europeans and the Brazilian-Indians eliminate any threats through killing and similar to the characters in “The Tempest”, the characters do at first think of getting rid of threats through killing to solve their problematic situations (Dupeyron 21). For instance, Caliban’s name seems to show how Prospero treats him. After Caliban sexually abuses Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, he was enslaved and is ill-treated. Caliban also believe that the island snatched from him by Prospero initially belongs to him which he inherited from his mother (Shakespeare 69). Caliban and Ariel are both presented in the play as Prospero’s colonized subjects, and the varying attitudes of these subjects towards their master show the different ways in which nature of humans respond to civilization. There is no doubt, both Caliban and Ariel are individuals who are oppressed by Prospero, although they develop a different relationship with their master by their natural character as well as their prior circumstances. The scenes on the Shakespeare’s play are structures with a purpose of emphasizing on the different characterizations of Caliban and Ariel (Shakespeare 35). Throughout the play, communications between Prospero and Ariel come directly after or before interactions between Prospero and Caliban. The different nature of the two slave-master interactions occurs dramatically hence portraying the contrast between the attitudes of these central characters.

To some extent, Caliban believes he should obey Prospero as long he has some sort of power over him. Prospero may not be as a powerful as he makes other individuals to think. Ariel is also a slave in the play, but he is presented as the one who possesses power (Shakespeare 32). Ariel tends to be a more submissive slave, who obeys whatever her master, Prospero, asks of him. On the other hand, Caliban is more hopeful he will one day be set free, although both of them are Prospero’s slaves and both have different mentalities. Unlike Ariel, Caliban does not have a promise to freedom. Prospero promises Ariel freedom as long she complies with whatever is instructed or asked of her (Shakespeare 64). Ariel though seems to be less interested in pushing for freedom at some point. He has a feeling he owes his life to Prospero for freeing him in a time of need. Caliban is presented as a slave with a disadvantage as a result of his appearance (Shakespeare 56). He is consistently referred to as “monster” throughout the play. It may also contribute to the reason Shakespeare chose to name the character as “Caliban” for him; to compare him to a monster.


The two writings also discuss an element of ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is used to define the view that one’s group or culture is superior to another group or culture. Both Montaigne and Shakespeare were able to cast light to the theme of ethnocentrism in their works to display differences among classes or groups. In both plays there seem to be a point that one class or group have a belief they are superior to others. In “Of Cannibals” by Montaigne, he discusses the differences between three cannibals and the Europeans that spoke with the king (Dupeyron, 21). The culture of cannibals had a belief all people are equal thus should be treated equally with no discrimination. When the cannibals observed the way Europeans conducted themselves they were surprised and could not understand the way there were some individuals of higher status and others ill-treated within their culture or remained at the bottom (Dupeyron 26). They were not familiar with the difference in the dynamics of power amongst the Europeans.

In the Shakespeare’s play, the difference in power dynamics can be observed. From the very beginning of the narrative, the difference in power demonstrates itself. The nobles despise the Mariners since they are not part of the same social group or class and as long they don’t meet requirements of their social status they are treated unfavorably (Shakespeare 46). While trying to gain control of the ship Gonzalo, a character in the play, states that “Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard” where the boatswain replies, “None that I love more than myself (Shakespeare 42).” It is clear the Mariners experience the same inequality undergone by the halves ass mentioned in “Of Cannibals” article. The Nobles are exhibiting features of ethnocentric since they believe their class is more important than the Mariners (Shakespeare 49). The other instance of ethnocentrism in Shakespeare’s play is where Miranda had attempted civilizing Caliban by training him how to communicate in English language so that he could drop his “brutish” language. The attempts to educate Caliban to drop his standards and adopt the European culture shows Miranda’s act of ethnocentrism. Miranda seems to believe that the group of people who speak English are more civilized and superior than those who speak other languages (Shakespeare 69). Therefore, she tries to transform and train Caliban so that he can fit in group or class of English speaking people.


Motifs are defined as recurring contrast, literary devices, and structures which help to inform and develop the main themes of the narrative. Shakespeare and Montaigne have used different setups and literary tools to support their arguments by developing various ideas and structures within their narratives. Shakespeare, for instance, explains power regarding masters and servants. Observing closely, every scene both explicitly or implicitly shows one party of the characters being subjected to control or submitting the power towards the victims (Shakespeare 72). The play illustrates the master-servant self-motive, which is mostly harsh in incidences where the relationship is threatened. It is evident in the play where servants become defiant, or masters are too harsh, the livelihood and harmony of their relationship are affected It is clear in the opening of the play. For instance in the opening of the narrative Boatswain (servant) expresses is anger towards his masters whose ineptitude threatens poses a threat to lead the ship to a wreck in the storm. The play also has motifs such as water and drowning, and mysterious noises (Shakespeare 21). For example, in the play, water is used as tool to contrast the characters. It is clear where echo reflecting on Alonso’s desire to drown himself as a way of fulfilling the promise of Prospero to drown his book seeks attention to the sacrifice each person should make. Alonso seems to be willing to surrender his life so that he becomes genuinely remorseful and seek forgiveness for his act of treason against Prospero. Similarly, Prospero should willing and ready t to let go both his power and magic so that he can rejoin the world he has been driven from (Shakespeare 48). Perhaps the most important effect of the water as a motif in the play is to strengthen the impact of symbolism of the play itself.


The Tempest and “Of Cannibals” have two different approaches regarding symbols as stylistic devices. When focusing on the symbols in The Tempest in the relationship with “Of Cannibals.” Thunder and lightning, the splitting of the ship are the mysterious noises that Shakespeare introduces the play (Shakespeare 71). The loud sounds are a wakeup call on the hostility of the environment for the weak. The writer demonstrates musical noises within the context. Ferdinand is tempted to go to Miranda’s house by Ariel’s music showing his weakness. The loud noises are also seen when Antonio and Sabastian are about to kill Alonso luckily Gonzalo wakes up due to noise (Shakespeare 65). Music symbols in this incidences contribute to a sign of speaking up on the wrongs. Shakespeare adopts sound to illustrate justice while Montaigne uses letters to explain the evils and hypocrisy of the society.

The play begins as the tempest puts all of Prospero enemies under his feet. The action exhibits the suffering that Prospero endured and the revenge he is willing to inflict on others. The actions of Prospero target to make sure that they are even in regards to pain with Alonso (Shakespeare 24). After the shipwrecked, the affected are put at the mercy of the sea. A similar occasion supporting this is when Prospero and his infant daughter were pulled off from the sea being given a second chance (Shakespeare 45). Prospero inflicts punishment on his enemies so that they may learn from their mistakes as he learned from his. Shakespeare show consequences and punishment can be used as a method of learning, while Montaigne believes in free will, gaining knowledge and thinking. The use of symbols to demonstrate actions is a strong idea that has assisted the two writers to create more themes (Shakespeare 22). They have also brought a better understanding to the readers on the topics discussed.

Conclusively, Shakespeare uses Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals” as a direct source to write his play The Tempest. There are many similarities observed between the two texts where Shakespeare seems to reply to Montaigne’s essay. The two authors bear similar ideas when developing some of their characters as well as themes. The two writers dehumanize cannibals where they are represented as sub-humans. According to Montaigne, cannibals are more of savages with a different soul far apart from having any comparison with that of a sober human being. Shakespeare also explains cannibals as barbarians, and he presents them as uncivilized. Miranda, for example, tries to teach Caliban English language but Caliban does not understand a single aspect of what he is being taught. The theme of power is also evident in both texts although it is presented in different senses. The relationship between Ariel and her master, Prospero, is an instance where Shakespeare engages Montaigne’s writing in his work. Additionally, the two plays show the theme of ethnocentrism among the characters. The two authors share same ideas though; they distinguish between language and stylistic forms.

Works cited

Dupeyron, Jean-Francois. "Montaigne's intentions of writing. The example of the chapter ‘Of Cannibals’." Methodos-Savoirs et Textes 16 (2016).

Rogers, Jami. "Review of Shakespeare's The Tempest (directed by Trevor Nunn) at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, 7 September 2011." Shakespeare 12.4 (2016): 429-432.

Shakespeare, William. "The Tempest." (1987).

September 11, 2021

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