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The Tempest is one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote in his industrious career. As an audience we cannot help but associate Prospero's `art', the great of the magician, to the great art of the playwright. Prospero is the most significant character in the play; he controls the fate of all the other characters and is key in generating the plot of the play. The fascination with The Tempest lies with how Shakespeare presents Prospero's immense and unquestionable power. Through magic and manipulation Prospero seeks to re-establish justice and bring a sense of conclusion to the play. Prospero's personal sense of justice is constantly questioned by the audience. It is not until the conclusion of the play when Prospero's Dukedom is returned, Miranda is happily married and the island is returned to the monstrous Caliban, that the audience become complicit in Prospero's vision. Prospero's ability to restore equilibrium by the end of the play is what makes him unique amongst Shakespeare's characters. This essay will investigate Prospero's character by analysing the nature of his power and more importantly how he uses such power.
The play opens on a remote island of exile where Prospero deposed from power and thrust out of Milan by his wicked brother, has found shelter with his only daughter - Miranda. I would firstly like to investigate the nature of Prospero's power and the implications this causes a Renaissance audience. The Tempest explores a number of issues that were highly topical in the Renaissance period. The play exploits a number of concerns including, the precarious nature of the ruler, the abuse of magic, colonisation and the discovery of the New World and the fear this brought amongst the people. Prospero is central to all of these concerns. In renaissance England it was widely believed that everyone's place within society was divinely ordained. The fact that Prospero was usurped by Antonio would have provoked an ominous shudder amongst a Stuart audience. Prospero's unstable rule of Milan is directly linked to his ability to perform magic, which becomes both his ally and his demise. If it was not for his obsession with gaining magic by the study of books rather than safe guarding his position, he may not have lost his Dukedom twelve years previously. Ironically it is Prospero's obsession with gaining power through magic that destroys his existing power as ruler. This automatically isolates the audience from Prospero as his use of magic is uncertain. Throughout the play Shakespeare forces the audience to question Prospero's motives. It is debatable whether he uses his absolute and god like power for the greater good or selfishly to restore himself back into a position of authority. Magic is an over riding factor within the play, the use of magical power was a subject much exploited by Shakespeare and his Contemporaries. Magic was an extremely dangerous topic in the period; a place where witches were still being hunted and burnt at the stake. It forces the audience to question if Shakespeare presents Prospero as either a powerful man or a cruel sorcerer. It is not just the power of magic itself that disconcerts the audience but also Prospero's grand design for such a power.
Prospero has a very clear idea of what exactly he is trying to achieve; he has the unique opportunity to interfere in the destiny of those around him. He is determined to do everything in his power to reverse the events which occurred twelve years ago. In the first scene we are introduced to the characters external to the island travelling from a wedding party on a ship. Prospero in his quest to restore order, makes Ariel bring about a storm in order to shipwreck those on the island that are crucial in changing his destiny, the same characters responsible for his demise twelve years previous. The island is similar to the theatre stage as it acts as a stage for Prospero's grand plan. By bringing all the characters together on the island Prospero creates a world he can control. He separates the survivors of the shipwreck into different groups, this serves to allow him to operate on the characters separately and in turn. Like a puppet master controlling the path of those on his created stage. It also ensures that the emotional shock of losing loved ones will have a beneficial effect on the victims allowing Prospero to prosper in his plan. As an audience we are aware of the extent of Prospero's control however the nature of his plan remains elusive. As an audience we are perplexed by Prospero's intentions as we are not sure how far he is willing to go to finally get what he desires. Shakespeare presents Prospero as an authoritarian making him very difficult to like and leading us as an audience to question his principles. The play and Shakespeare offer no notion of higher order or justice to supersede Prospero's interpretation of events, his godlike power is terrifying for the audience who constantly question if Prospero is worthy of such power.
In order to fully understand Shakespeare's presentation of the protagonist we must investigate how Prospero relates to the characters around him. As we have previously discussed Prospero within the play holds a unique position, his immense power means he is superior to all the characters in the play. The way he treats his inferiors differs greatly from character to character. The dialogue opens with Prospero firmly in control; he begins by probing Miranda with telling questions rather like a psychiatrist. Hence after a mere 150 lines Shakespeare has provided us with the relevant information from the past in such a way as to present Prospero and Miranda vividly before us and through their conversation involve us in the events narrated; as well as making us anxious to know how the story will continue. Prospero's condescending treatment of Miranda in their first exchange shows us that Prospero is in complete control `Obey, and be attentive', Miranda who is used to such treatment hangs on Prospero's every word. `Prospero has established the principle that stands whether a father's action, be just or unjust: the daughter must submit to his demand for absolute unthinking obedience'. Although Prospero has absolute power over Miranda he does seem to have her best interests at heart, we see this in his plot to make Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love. As an audience we also see the under lying issue that perhaps Prospero only wants them to marry so that there is a strong union between Naples and Milan. Prospero imprisons Ferdinand to make him and Miranda's love stronger as it is more difficult to obtain. He tests the young couples love for one another; again Prospero is generating the action and plot of the play.0 `From the extension of reason Prospero derives a power which he uses in an attempt to influence everyone on the island. The Self control he has so studiously required is imparted to Ferdinand who learns to love more deeply.' Prospero's moral and psychological willingness to deceive even his beloved daughter again make the audience question his morality it is these ambiguous motives concerning Miranda that further enhance the audiences mistrust of Prospero.
Although Prospero's treatment of Miranda, Ferdinand and the other characters is manipulative, the treatment of his inferiors is none more poignant than Prospero's treatment of Caliban and Ariel. Prospero is indignant at his brother for taking his power yet he has no qualms about enslaving Ariel and using Caliban to get what he wants. Just as Ferdinand usurped his Dukedom we see Prospero as the usurper on the island. This point is emphasised by having Caliban describing Prospero's treatment of him. We see Prospero as a patronising coloniser trying to exploit Caliban, `When thou cam'st first thou strok'st me, and made much of me'. This shows Prospero's willingness to use Caliban to discover the island resources, yet when he has gained all information he is just as willing to enslave Caliban. The audience can't seem to sympathise with the protagonist because he seems to have not learnt from what happened to him twelve years previously, he was usurped yet he tries to usurp Caliban of his island and succeeds. We also see that Caliban is very dangerous with his attempted rape of Miranda and the cooperation in the plot to assassinate Prospero. Perhaps making Prospero's cruel treatment of Caliban justified. He treats Caliban as sub human and his punishments of the `slave' are petty and vindictive. Prospero still exerts his power over those below him in status, wealth and strength. Although at some points Shakespeare shows Prospero in a good light and makes him easier to trust and admire. For example Shakespeare uses Caliban's mother Sycorax to, `enable us by contrast to see Prospero as a quite different exploiter of the supernatural; as a man of wisdom seeking to employ his knowledge for the betterment of the world around him.' Sycorax is used to show us that Prospero uses magic more benevolently and less violently, perhaps showing the Shakespearian audience that Prospero's master plan is for the greater good.
Ariel is the biggest source of power for Prospero, Prospero uses Ariel to cause the tempest and control the other characters. Prospero constantly reminds Ariel of the torment he freed him from, `Dost thou forget from what a torment I did free thee?' He manipulates and blackmails the `airy spirit'. We see Prospero cursing at Ariel, who only ever obeys his commands `Thou liest, malignant thing'. The dramatic strength of The Tempest resides in the constant and violent shifts of perspective which constantly force us to reassess the situation. Ariel very shortly after being cursed at refers to Prospero as `noble master' making us question once more whether to like or dislike Prospero's character.
It is not until the final scene of the play that the audience understand fully Prospero's intentions. Throughout the entire play we question Prospero's use of his unique power; the concluding vision of Prospero is not assessable to the audience until the final act of the play. Prospero passes judgement on his enemies Antonio and Alonso and he forgives. This give the audience a sense of satisfaction as the godlike power held by Prospero is used for mercy, a very godlike quality. Prospero's judgements are liberated from the audience's criticisms as the play concludes with Prospero giving up his magic to return to Naples and be an improved ruler, relinquishes his domination of Miranda, Caliban regains his island and Ariel is freed from all constraints. Many critics and readers of the play have interpreted Prospero as a surrogate for Shakespeare enabling the audience to explore first hand the ambiguities and ultimate wonder of the creative endeavour. Prospero's final speech, in which he likens himself to a playwright by asking the audience for applause, strengthens the reading of the play and makes the plays final scene function as a moving celebration of creativity, humanity and art. Prospero emerges a more likeable and sympathetic figure. His love for Miranda, forgiveness of his enemies and happy ending work to mitigate some of the undesirable means he uses to achieve it. The power wielded by Prospero, which seemed unsettling at first, is actually the source of all of our pleasure in the drama. The name of Prospero is extremely informative by the conclusion of the play, as a character he has indeed prospered in bringing unity from within the play world.