The Transformation of Prospero

William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, was written sometime after late 1610 and performed for King James I at least two times between 1611 and 1613 (Cliffnotes). Sometimes classified as a comedy because it ends with a wedding, The Tempest actually defies exact categorization. It is a complex play and scholarly interpretations about every aspect of it abound. Amidst the widely diverse theories that exist about The Tempest, this essay will focus primarily on the personal transformation of Prospero, and aim to prove the thesis: The myriad power dynamics between characters in The Tempest serve ultimately to illustrate facets of Prospero’s transformation from disenfranchised magician to overlord to enlightened sage.

It is precisely because of the dynamics between other characters in The Tempest that Prospero emerges as the hero of this play. As Paul A. Cantor points out in the article “Shakespeare’s The Tempest: The Wise Man as Hero,” Prospero is not the type of figure that would typically be at the center of a play. Cantor explains “Ordinarily we expect the heroes in plays to be moved by the basic human passions, such as sexual desire, greed, or ambition” (65). The Tempest is rare in its composition around a central character whose primary qualities are wisdom and restraint.

In the second scene of the play we learn how Prospero came to be on the island, that his own brother overthrew him as Duke of Milan, and set him out to sea (Act I, Scene 2, 46-208). The picture of Prospero, when he was Duke of Milan, painted by this backstory is that of a man pre-occupied with his art (magic), and naïve enough to leave kingly duties in the hands of his ambitious brother. Thus, he has been handily swept aside and left to drown.

There are several examples of other characters in this story that are “disenfranchised” too, whether momentarily or chronically. For example, in the first scene of the play, King Alonzo and his entourage of men are stripped of their usual authority in the midst of the tempest when the boatswain bucks propriety and says to Gonzalo, “What care these roarers for the name of king? To cabin! Silence! Trouble us not!” (Act I, Scene 1, 16-18).

Through expositional dialogue in the first Act we know that Prospero arrived on the island as a dethroned duke, and then apparently got right to work on a plan to regain his position. One of his first tasks was to enslave Caliban, who existed on the island before Prospero arrived. Caliban is another example of a person disenfranchised in this story. Throughout the play, Caliban bemoans his servitude, as in the first Act when he laments to Prospero “This island’s mine, by Sycorax, my mother, which thou tak’st from me.” He goes on to say “…For I am all the subjects that you have, which first was mine own king; and here you sty me in this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me the rest o’ th’ island” (Act I, Scene 2, 396-411).

Many writers point to the relationship between Prospero and Caliban as reflective of the advent of slavery in the 17th century, and liken Prospero’s perception of Caliban to the accounts that European explorers were reporting about natives in the “new world.” In the article “Form and Disorder in The Tempest,” Rose A. Zimbardo offers the viewpoint that Caliban, being the offspring of an evil witch and the devil, really represents the element of “disorder.” If seen through this lens, we can view Prospero’s enslavement of Caliban as his attempt to create “order” out of the disorder he has been thrust into.

Another character that is stripped of his franchise is Ariel. Prospero rescued Ariel from captivity and apparently Ariel is beholden to serve Prospero for the favor. When Ariel asks Prospero to set him free in Act I, Prospero puts Ariel back in his place, saying “Dost thou forget from what a torment I did free thee?” He goes on to remind Ariel of the horrid details of his imprisonment at the hands of Sycorax and finally finishes by saying “If thou more murmur’st, I will rend an oak and peg thee in his knotty entrails till thou hast howled away twelve winters.” Ariel humbly submits (Act I, Scene 2, 299-354).

Through Prospero’s patient efforts over time, developing his magic art and harnessing the energy of his servants, we find him in Act IV having complete control over every other character. As he says, “At this hour lies at my mercy all mine enemies“ (Act IV, Scene 1, 291-292). Having power over others is another dynamic that can be seen throughout the characters’ relationships in this play.

Antonio, the brother of Prospero, is a clear example of someone who likes to dominate others. In the backstory he has usurped Prospero’s dukedom. In the current story he encourages Sebastian to kill Alonzo and steal the throne of Naples. Writer Zimbardo posits that Antonio has no other motive for encouraging this coup by Sebastian other than to promote disorder (55).

A particularly humorous example of the desire to have power over others is the scene where Stephano is seduced by Caliban’s idea that he kill Prospero and become king of the island. Here, Stephano, who has been a servant up to this point in his life, sees the possibilities of having absolute power. Caliban entices him with images of being king, and assures Stephano that beautiful Miranda will be his wife and “bring thee forth brave brood” (Act III, Scene 2, 115). Stephano doesn’t need much convincing. He replies, “Monster, I will kill this man. His daughter and I will be king and queen – save our Graces! – and Trinculo and thyself shall be viceroys” (Act III, Scene 2, 116-118).

Zimbardo treats the coup generated by Caliban as a parody of the other coup being promoted by Antonio. She posits that in both cases, characters that embody disorder (Antonio and Caliban) generate the plots, which serves to contrast Prospero, who represents order and goodness (55).

In the end, Prospero does not want to retain control over all the other characters. At the point where a more vengeful character might punish those who have wronged him, Prospero sets all his enemies free. This final stage of Prospero’s transformation involves a spiritual component, prisms of which are seen in three other characters of the play.

In the first Act, Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, sees Alonzo’s son, Ferdinand, wandering up from the shipwreck. She assumes he is a spirit. When Ferdinand sees her, he says “Most sure the goddess on whom these airs attend!” (Act I, Scene 2, 505-506). They learn that they are both human and they fall in love instantly. The purity of their mutual trust and instant surrender to each other portends a spiritual grace in the center of all the other action. Miranda, in utter lack of artifice, says to Ferdinand, “I am your wife if you’ll marry me. If not, I’ll die your maid. To be your fellow you may deny me, but I’ll be your servant whether you will or no.” Ferdinand replies “My mistress, dearest, and thus humble ever” and offers his hand in marriage (Act III, Scene 1, 100-107). Miranda and Ferdinand reflect what is best and yet to come in Prospero’s character.

Finally, more than anyone, it is Ariel who exemplifies and shines the way for Prospero’s complete transformation. On a practical level, Prospero has relied on the powers of Ariel to execute every stage of his methodical plan. More than that, though, Ariel is living Spirit, purity itself.

Ariel wants to be free, but is in bondage to Prospero. Still, he holds no grudge and gives wholeheartedly. His unsullied joy is evident throughout the execution of his tasks. He takes on frightening forms and orchestrates near-catastrophic events but no one is actually hurt by them. His greatest ambition is to live joyfully in harmony with nature. As he says when his freedom is near, “Where the bee sucks, there suck I. In a cowslip’s bell I lie. There I couch when owls do cry. On the bat’s back I do fly after summer merrily. Merrily, merrily shall I live now under the blossom that hangs on the bow” (Act V, Scene 1, 98-104).

Prospero loves his daughter, but his relationship with Ariel is perhaps the one where he, himself, is known most truly. As Ariel says to Prospero, “Thy thoughts I cleave to. What’s thy pleasure?” (Act IV, Scene 1, 183). This kind of attentiveness breeds intimacy and their intimacy is clear when Ariel asks Prospero “Do you love me, master? No?” and Prospero says “Dearly, my delicate Ariel” (Act IV, Scene 1, 52-53).

It is Ariel who guides Prospero toward a compassionate view of his enemies when he says, “…That if you now beheld them, your affections would become tender.” Prospero agrees, “Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury do I take part. The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance” (Act V, Scene 1, 23-36). After everything that Prospero went through in the twelve years leading up this point, he decides he will “break the spell” and let all his enemies go free.

Ariel’s selflessness most closely reflects and affects Prospero’s complete relinquishment of control over others. Prospero has been promising to release Ariel back to the elements. When he has sorted everything else out with all the other characters, including marrying his daughter to Ferdinand, he finally does release Ariel, in spite of their attachment to one another. Theirs is the last exchange before Prospero’s goodbye to the audience.

Prospero knows that by giving up his magic, he will be vulnerable, but he is willing to live with uncertainty. His daughter’s future is secure and he has reinstituted his honor. He will live free of magic tricks from here on out. As he says in the epilogue, “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, and what strength I have’s mine own” (Epilogue, 1-2).

In the end, we applaud a very unlikely Shakespearean hero. By subverting the efforts of the conspirators, and the fools, and by removing obstacles from the starry-eyed lovers, Shakespeare delegates them all as diffused subplots and makes Prospero emerge as the stoic figure that orchestrated it all (Cantor, 68).

As to the transformation of Prospero’s already tempered character, I submit that it is the example of Ariel’s joy and generosity, the love from Ariel, and the love for Ariel that purifies Prospero and propels him to the final elevation of enlightened sage. As Ariel asks in his last line before being released by Prospero, “Was’t well done?” Prospero’s answer is, “Bravely, my diligence. Thou shalt be free” (Act V, Scene 1, 291-292)

Works Cited

Cantor, Paul A. “Shakespeare’s The Tempest: The Wise Man as Hero.” Shakespeare Quarterly 31.1 (1980): 64-75. JSTOR. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.

Shakespeare, William, Barbara A. Mowat, and Paul Werstine. The Tempest. New York: Washington Square, 2004. Print.

“The Tempest By William Shakespeare About The Tempest.” About The Tempest. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

Zimbardo, Rose Abdelnour. “Form and Disorder in The Tempest.” Shakespeare Quarterly 14.1 (1963): 49-56. JSTOR. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.