The opening lines of Act 1 scene 1 and the exposition given by Prospero in scene 2 combine to give the reader a picture of well-read aristocracy as being almost impotent. As scene 1 opens with the tumult of mariners working to stay afloat in the storm, the exhortations of the boatswain that the noblemen please stay out of the way fall on deaf ears, to comic effect. “I pray now keep below” (1.1.10) and “…You mar our labour…” (1.1.12) are dumbly ignored by nobles who cannot appreciate their plight. They go on to curse the very men on whom hang their hopes for survival: “A pox o’your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!” (1.1.36-37) The rhetorical question and demand made by the boatswain is telling: “…What cares these roarers/for the name of the king? To cabin! Silence; trouble us not.” (1.1.15-16) In the face of natural disaster and survival, title, learning, or knowledge only matter if they apply directly to saving your skin. That “these roarers” can doubly apply to the hands on deck, or white-capped waves that buffet the boat is also interesting. The mariners are only hindered by the grasping and superficially imposed hierarchy of the nobility. What truly matters is ability in the face of adversity.
Additionally, the narrative that Prospero unfolds is not initially flattering to intellectual pursuits. As Prospero “…neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated/To closeness and the bettering of my mind,” (1.2.89-90) his brother made deals with his enemies to usurp his Duchy. Though Prospero holds obvious magical powers (putting Miranda to sleep and working with Ariel to create the very storm that has thrown the nobles on the island), all his time spent at literacy and learning have allowed a terrible ignorance of practical concerns. Now, it is clear that the long-game of Prospero will win over the meaner machinations of his brother. However, given our recent completion of Richard III (and this would certainly be plain to Shakespeare’s audience), coup d’etats can often involve the slaying of royal children. Prospero’s lapse of attentions, though here on the mend, could have been fatal for both him and his daughter. Miranda is explicit in acknowledging this: “Wherefore did they not/That hour destroy us? (1.2.139-140)
The Tempest may, through its plot, show social hierarchies to endure and retain their grasp on human concerns. However, the metaphor of the storm, the cries of the mariners, the absurdly clumsy ignorance of the nobles, and Prospero’s own fall from grace all combine to offer a striking critique of the social structure. Entrenched structures of nobility may hold in the long-run, but as soon as emergencies arise, only competence and survival skills matter–traits often lacking in the well-read nobility.