In William Shakespeare’s final play, “The Tempest,” the playwright spins a magical web of a story that, although being comedic and light-hearted, subtly addresses the issues of absolutism, power and the monarchy. The main character in “The Tempest” is a man named Prospero. Formerly the Duke of Milan but exiled to a deserted island by his pernicious brother, Prospero uses his magical powers to exact control over his island and anyone who happens upon it. While the play itself is a comedy, Prospero’s character could easily be read as a direct representation of Shakespeare’s opinion on the rulers of his time.
In the beginning of the play, the audience is witness to a terrible storm (a tempest) that threatens to sink the ship of the King of Naples, Alfonso. Also aboard this ship are the King’s brother, Sebastian, his son, Ferdinand, and Antonio, Duke of Milan and brother of Prospero. Though the sailors struggle valiantly, the ship is sunk and it would seem that no one aboard has survived the accident.
The second act opens with the character of Prospero, standing on a beach with his daughter, Miranda, watching the spectacle of the sinking ship. Miranda is very upset by the sinking ship, and declares: “If by your art, dearest father, you have / Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.” (1.2.1-2). With this passage, the audience is first made aware of Prospero’s magical powers. Using his wizardry, Prospero has brought about the storm that has caused the King of Naples’ ship to wreck, yet he assures Miranda that in his magic art, he has “So safely ordered that there is no soul – / No, not so much perdition as an hair, / Betid to any creature in the vessel.” (1.2.36-38). At this point, it becomes evident that Prospero does not wish to kill those aboard the ship, but he clearly has some motive for bringing about the storm which he knew would make the ship wreck upon his island. Also of note in this scene is the way in which Prospero has almost complete control over Miranda. Though she is Prospero’s daughter, Miranda is also his subject upon the island, and her role of subordination is significant in the illustration of Prospero as a ruler.
After she has collected herself in her shock over the sunken ship, Miranda asks her father how it was that they came to be exiled upon their deserted island. Prospero begins his explanation of their exile by telling his daughter that it has been “Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since, / Thy father was the Duke of Milan and / A prince of power.” (1.2.66-68). Prospero then goes on to describe how exactly he and his daughter came to be on the island:
Prospero the prime duke, being so reputed
In dignity, and for the liberal arts
Without a parallel. Those being all my study,
The government I cast upon my brother
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies.
The audience learns that as Prospero immersed himself in his studies of magic, his dukeship was gradually usurped by his brother, Antonio. With this passage, Shakespeare first begins to highlight the belief that if one is to be involved in public leadership, one must sacrifice some of the goals of the private life. “I, thus neglecting worldly ends,” Prospero declares, “all dedicated / To closeness and the bettering of my mind…in my false brother / Awakened an evil nature.” (1.2.109-110, 112-113). Prospero continues to explain that after Antonio supplanted him in his position of power, he “hurried us [Prospero and Miranda] aboard a bark” and “Bore us some leagues to sea.” (1.2.172-173).
Miranda is shocked to hear these stories, but Prospero tells her not to be alarmed, for “By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune, / Now my dear lady, hath mine enemies / Brought to this shore.” (1.2.213-215). With this rather ominous message, it is clear that Prospero means to do his enemies some mischief while they are on his island, and after delivering this message of foreboding, he bids Miranda to fall asleep, and tells her that her drowsiness is a “good dullness” and she “canst not choose” to stay awake.
It must be noted at this point that though Prospero has been ruler of the island for twelve years, his only subjects are Miranda, a spirit named Ariel, and a conniving, beast-like man called Caliban. After Miranda has been put under an enchanted sleep, the audience discovers that Prospero has been commanding the spirit Ariel to wreak havoc upon King Alfonso’s ship. Ariel assures Prospero, as Prospero had assured Miranda, that upon the ship, “Not a hair perished, / On their sustaining garments not a blemish, / But fresher than before.” (1.2.258-9). Ariel then goes on to explain that he has dispersed Alfonso and his troops about the island, and he has left the King’s son, Ferdinand, by himself on a different part of the beach.
Upon hearing this news, Prospero congratulates Ariel on a job well done, and promises the spirit that he will free him after their work is completed. Prospero then awakens Miranda and bids her to go with him and visit Caliban, the beast-man who also inhabits the island. Though Caliban is an uncouth mongrel, his role in the play is very significant in that he is Prospero’s primary subject on the island. Prospero addresses Caliban as “Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself / Upon thy wicked dam, come forth!” (1.2.383-4).
As Prospero and Miranda converse with Caliban, it becomes evident that Caliban’s mother was a witch who initially inhabited the island, but was forced out by Prospero’s magic. Prospero and Miranda took pity on Caliban, and went so far as to try and educate him (“I endowed thy purposes with woes that made them known”), but Caliban could only return their kindness with the wickedness of trying to rape Miranda. As a result, Caliban is forced to live in enslavement and abuse, but he always obeys Prospero, for, as Caliban says, “His art is of such power / It would control my dam’s god, Setebos, / And make a vassal of him.” (1.2.448-450).
In this scene, it becomes quite evident that Prospero has no power (or at least not as much power) when he does not use his magic and wizardry. With this evidence, perhaps Shakespeare suggests that some people are simply better if left alone with their private endeavors, and they should not seek to undertake positions of power. Though Caliban tried to rape Miranda, one should take into account that he is uncivilized and uneducated and, what’s more, raised by a witch. Seen from this light, one could almost pity Caliban and believe that Prospero is too malevolent a leader.
As the play continues, it becomes evident that Prospero is scheming to have Miranda fall in love with Ferdinand, Prince of Naples. With the assistance of Ariel, his plan works, and Ferdinand and Miranda become engaged on the island.
To celebrate the engagement, Prospero instructs Ariel to perform a masque with other spirits of the island. As the three humans look on the spectacle, Prospero delivers a monologue which touches upon the temporality of life, but which could also be read as a manifesto on leadership. It is perhaps this passage which most strongly gives evidence for Shakespeare’s opinion on the mercurial nature of leadership.
Our revels are now ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are all melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on.
With this passage, Prospero reveals his opinions on life, power, and leadership. The “revels” which he speaks of obviously refer to the engagement celebration, but they could also refer to Prospero’s revels in magic and wizardry: he has had his fun, but if he wishes to be the Duke of Milan again, he must sacrifice the idle pleasures of his private life. Prospero describes the masque as a “vision” of “cloud-capped towers” and “gorgeous palaces.” He tells Ferdinand that “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” With these lines, it could be inferred that Prospero is talking about the nature of power and that he believes that leadership is often idealistic, and it is always temporal – no ruler is ever secure enough to stay in power forever.
At the end of the play, Prospero regains his dukeship, gives up his magic, sets Arial free, and takes responsibility for Caliban. By setting Ariel free, Prospero acknowledges that his rule on the island has ended and that he no longer has power over the spirits and magical beings of that island. When he takes responsibility for Caliban, Prospero demonstrates that he is ready to become a responsible leader, ready to accept the consequences of his actions, even if those consequences are horrible beings like Caliban.
Finally, by forcing Prospero to give up his iconic book and staff, it is as though Shakespeare believes that a good ruler cannot revel in private pleasures if he or she is to be an effective leader. Indeed, it was Prospero’s inquisitiveness in the magical world which brought about the loss of his dukedom to begin with. In the epilogue of the play, Prospero admits his own weakness when he says “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have ‘s mine own, / Which is most faint.”
All in all, Shakespeare’s final masterpiece is one that is worth close study. Though it is a work of fantasy and comedy, its underlying message is one that addresses the tense political situation of Shakespeare’s day and can be applied to modern politics as well.