Power and Powerlessness in The Tempest

Power and Powerlessness in The Tempest

?The Power and Powerlessness of a Tempest First performed in 1611, The Tempest is Shakespeare’s final play. It explores traditional notions of power through rulers and subjects. By examining the relationship between the two, the piece challenges the simplicity of such titles. Through the construction of characters, and the interactions between, we can appreciate each ones’ possession of power, as well as their limitations. Prospero, both a subject and a ruler, exemplifies this.

We can analyze this dynamic further through close examination of Ariel and Miranda, each subjects to Prospero, yet powerful in their own ways. The play’s structure allows us to look at the complexities of characters, and therefore their level of power, a great deal. This is because, unlike some of his other works, Shakespeare’s Tempest dives straight into what is effectively the climax of the play by commencing with the storm. This way, we observe actions interactions between characters that are influenced by conflicts that occurred before the story told in the play.

Due to this, readers can challenge their own assumptions about the characters, and observe them as more complex beings, each with their own fields of power and powerlessness. Before exploring the ways in which Shakespeare challenges a reader’s expectations, we should acknowledge these ‘traditional notions of power’ with which one may be approaching the text. In order to legitimize one character’s power over another, they are given roles that we might find relevant to those within our own society.

Due to our context – be that modern or the original audiences’ Elizabethan period – these roles identify with a place on a sort of hierarchy of power. In this way we might see Prospero as dominating in his role as an empowered magician, while Miranda falls under his control as his daughter, and Ariel, like Caliban, his slave. Such simplicity of roles would indeed reaffirm understood notions of power and powerlessness. However, as the story unfolds, our predetermined impressions of characters are complicated.

Prospero’s role as an empowered magician is challenged by his own lack of power as the deposed duke of Milan; Miranda is no less empowered by her role as a woman than she is controlled but Prospero’s role as her father; and Ariel’s power as a sprite goes literally beyond that of Prospero’s. Even Caliban, so suppressed by Prospero, proves powerful in the way he challenges and disturbs Prospero’s assumed rule of the island to which Caliban rightfully belongs. Despite being the play’s Protagonist, we learn little about Prospero until the falling action and resolution.

In fact, he is not introduced until the second scene of the play. His is, at this point, a mysterious and powerful character around whom Miranda, Ariel and Caliban revolve. We can see his controlling nature in the way he speaks to his daughter in this scene, demanding and doubtful of the attention he desires: “Dost thou attend me? ” “Thou attend’st not? ” “I pray thee mark me. ” and again “Dost thou hear? ” This is indicative of his desire for power, something we might soon attribute to having been stripped of the power he once possessed as a Duke.

In such, within the very first act we are being exposed to the limits to even the (seemingly) most power character. Prospero maintains his power though those who fear and/ or serve him, and so this idea of his limitations can be considered on a far deeper level when we are exposed to the contradictory power of such characters. As the play progresses, we see Prospero cling to his new found position as kind of ‘king’ over his few ‘subjects’ on the island.

Fuelled by anger, he desires to reap revenge on those who stripped him from his Dukedom, and obtain power and control over them. This state, within which Prospero appears to remain until perhaps the final act of the play, is one that Shakespeare can be seen to have explored in many of his works. As said by Isabella in Measure for Measure, an earlier Shakespeare piece: “Man Proud man, dressed in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he’s most assured, his glassy essence like an angry ape, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as make the angels weep. His hunger to assume his rightful position of power conflicts with his good moral character, as we see him struggle to mistreat others for his own self-elevation, as has been done to him by other in the past. The final scene proves his integrity, and desire for true resolution, as he sets those he has enslaved (that being all the characters he has brought to island) free. Above this, Prospero is acknowledging the power of other characters. Miranda becomes wife to Fernando, and Ariel -Prospero’s source of physical power to fulfill his symbolically powerful role as kind of the island – is set free.

Miranda is a character that is not often given speech relating to self-expression. In the presence of her father she is quiet and praising. Though she does appear to have questions about her own history, and the doings of her father, she is consistently satisfied and silenced by him. The source of power he seems to hold over her is unclear. While it could be attributed to her life-long isolation from society, Shakespeare also allows audiences to consider that this power may be supernatural.

Miranda to Prospero: “The strangeness of your story put heaviness in me”. One of, if not her only, moment of apparent aggression in her father’s presence is directed at Caliban: “…thy vile race, though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good natures could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou deservedly confined into this rock”. This moment is one is which Miranda is almost speaking in Prospero’s voice, as she expresses her, perhaps taught, hatred for him. Interestingly, this exclamation his been spoken by Prospero in many productions of The Tempest.

This may be fitting as it seems to express strength through her father’s opinion rather than her own. Such a passive role seems to fall under Miranda’s position as Prospero’s daughter. He has shaped her to obey him, and she can be likened to Ariel or Caliban in the power he holds of them. As his subjects, none of them ever attempt escape. Think Caliban, “I must obey. His art is of such pow’r it would control my dam’s god“, or Ariel’s services in exchange for the freedom It cannot grant itself. It is certainly not in Miranda’s position as his daughter that she is empowered.

However, in her broader role as a woman we can see she possesses powers of charm and femininity that will be her escape to her father’s manipulation. This comes with Miranda’s growing interactions with Fernando. For the first time, we even observe Miranda defying her father: when Fernando asks her for her name, she responds, “Miranda. O my father, I have broke your hest to say so! ” As can be observed throughout the play, Prospero becomes the product of his own disempowerment of others. He had been the one o scheme for Miranda and Fernando’s meeting, and sought to make use of her role as a woman to ensure their marriage. He is, however, confronted with the degree of her powers of femininity, as she and Fernando fall in love much faster than he had anticipated. Ariel is another character that appears to be a subject to Prospero. As the play commences, we are unsure of the extent of Prospero’s own powers, and it is not until we first meet Ariel that we can begin to appreciate the extent of the power it possesses, upon which Prospero is reliant.

Prospero: “Hast thou, spirit, performed to point the tempest that I bade thee? ” Ariel: “To every article. ” This creates an interesting dynamic in their relationship. Ariel is essentially Prospero’s slave, and proves to be fearful of escape, Prospero: “What is’t thou canst demand? ” Ariel: “My liberty. ” Prospero: “Before the time be out? No more! ” …Ariel: “Pardon, master, I will be correspondent to command and do my spriting gently. ” Yet, simultaneously, it is Prospero’s greatest source of power. In fact, as our conception of Ariel’s power grows, that of Prospero’s becomes increasingly questionable.

Perhaps readers may begin to see Ariel as another one of Prospero’s ‘props’, much like his staff and books, without which he is closer to the powerlessness of his subjects. Ariel shows signs of other superior qualities throughout the play. An example of these is Ariel’s strong moral character, comparable to that of Prospero. Despite being a sprite, much of the play shows the non-human Ariel’s greater understanding of humanity. Ariel: “Your charm so strongly works ‘em, that if you now beheld them, your affections would be come tender. Prospero: “Dost thou think so, spirit? ”

Ariel: “Mine would sir, were I human. ” It can be seen, too, in the story of how Ariel came to be in Prospero’s possession. She had refused to perform the evil tasks demanded of her by Sycorax, a witch, and had been left inside a tree to die, whereupon Prospero found her. As Shakespeare’s final publication, the Tempest explores the power and powerlessness that goes on beyond the powerful titles that various characters in his other plays gain and lose. In this play, we are able to explore the characters and appreciate each of their powers and limitations, despite the positions they are prescribed to.