Prospero Constructs the Tempest Hierarchy and Returns Affairs to a “Natural” State
The Tempest raises many questions regarding the formation of authority and power. Is hierarchy understood as natural or as constructed? Also, what are the consequences when authority is usurped? This paper will attempt to answer these questions in a succinct manner using textual references to solidify its arguments. As the play progresses, Prospero constructs the hierarchy in such a way as to return things to their “natural” state. Any type of usurpation, whether attempted or successful, will always end up with power back in its rightful place, and most of the time with a lesson learned.
The events that take place in the play are all made possible by the original usurpation against Prospero, the right Duke of Milan by Antonio, his brother, the usurping Duke of Milan. The usurpation itself is made possible initially because Prospero has become increasingly more spellbound by his library of books, the same books which he later uses to exact his revenge. This is to say that not only are these books primarily the sole cause of Prospero’s loss of power, but they are also entirely responsible for Prospero’s dukedom being reinstated, because the magic they grant him gave him the power to do just that.
This is one example of how power will always end up back in its rightful place. In regards to the usurpation, Antonio (in league with Alonso) decides to overthrow Prospero’s dukedom. In exchange for Antonio’s homage and tribute, the king levied an army, removed Prospero from his rightful position as duke and replaced him with Antonio, the new Duke of Milan. The play’s view of the natural order was based on the hierarchy of all beings and things. According to this view, when the hierarchy was destroyed, disorder and chaos reigned.
All would go well as long as individuals in families and the larger society knew their place. Antonio’s selfish refusal to recognize his particular place in the social and political hierarchy resulted in the overthrow of Prospero’s dukedom and the consequent corruption of the “natural” harmony. Prospero expresses his disdain for Antonio and his will to regain power when he says: I pray thee, mark me, -that a brother should Be so perfidious! ?he whom, next thyself, Of all the world I loved, and to him put The manage of my state; (5) So dry he was for sway, wi’ the King of Naples
To give him annual tribute, do him homage, Subject his coronet to his crown, and bend The dukedom, yet unbow’d, -alas poor Milan! ? To most ignoble stooping. (6) The first essential step that Prospero takes in order to regain his dukedom is to construct the storm (or tempest) itself. This storm, which rocks with force the very ship that Prospero’s enemies are on, overturns the hierarchy on the ship. The storm at sea is instilled by Prospero’s magic which permeates the actions of the characters until Act V when he removes his magician’s robe. Not until then has its purpose of restoring his dukedom been accomplished.
In a social and political society, the king would almost always exercise his authority over all of his subjects, but on this ship at sea he has stepped into the domain of the Ship-master and Boatswain and must now give in to their authority. These are the people who hold the king’s life in their hands. The Boatswain sums it up nicely in saying, “What cares these roarers for the / name of king? ” (1). The king is not more powerful than the roaring sea. The aristocrats attempt to control the situation but only end up making things more difficult for the mariners, since they have no idea what they are talking about.
Alonso and Antonio insist upon asking for the Ship-master repeatedly, and the Boatswain expresses their futility when he says, “Do you not hear him? You mar our labour: keep your cabins: / you do assist the storm” (1). This reversal of hierarchy foreshadows the major reconstruction of hierarchy that will take place by Prospero’s hand throughout the rest of the play. We will now examine the Caliban’s actions and interactions with Prospero and with Stephano and Trinculo. Prospero usurped Caliban’s position as king of the island, just as Antonio usurped his brother’s dukedom in Milan.
However, Prospero is not wrong in his usurpation because Caliban is a savage creature, and therefore unfit to rule. Prospero’s usurpation of Caliban’s throne is thus simply putting the hierarchy in a more “natural” state of affairs. We are especially receptive to the idea of Caliban being inhuman mainly because of the judgment Miranda gives of him even before he is formally introduced. She says, “‘T is a villain, sir, / I do not love to look on” (12). We are further convinced of his inability to rule when Prospero says: Thou most lying slave, Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have used thee,
Filth as thou art, with human care; and lodged thee In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate The honour of my child. (14) The tension between the two worlds of the play centers on the issue of “natural” man versus civilized man. Caliban represents “nature” without the benefit of nurture. When Caliban attempts to violate Miranda’s honor, he cannot do otherwise because he is a “natural” man without the benefit of societal restraints. Thus was it natural for Prospero to usurp the throne from Caliban. Prospero constructs the hierarchy of the island by usurping it from Caliban.
His motivation behind doing this is that by making the island his own, he is furthering his design by which he will exact his revenge on the aristocrats and regain his dukedom. Caliban’s conspiracy to murder Prospero and repossess the island is a direct consequence of Prospero’s usurpation of Caliban’s throne. However, even this is essentially constructed by Prospero, because he brings the trio of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo together. This is an attempt at usurpation that is unsuccessful, because, as was mentioned before, Prospero is the rightful ruler of the island. A lesson is ultimately learned by Caliban here:
I’ll be wise hereafter, And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass Was I, to take this drunkard for a god, And worship this dull fool! (67) Prospero further constructs the hierarchy of the island (pre-storm) by enslaving Ariel. At the same time, he is also helping to return things to a more “natural” state. He first releases the spirit from the tree in which he was bound by the evil witch Sycorax. Prospero’s ultimate intention with Ariel is to release him into the “natural” element from which he came. First, though, he must remain under Prospero’s control in order for him to regain his dukedom.
Ariel will then be allowed to return to his “natural” position of freedom. Enslaving Ariel gives Prospero the tools he needs to bring the aristocrats to the island and convince them to repent. On the island, Prospero’s magic is mainly performed by Ariel. In fact, it is Ariel who raises the tempest under Prospero’s direction. Prospero constructs the relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand in order to further his hierarchy construction. The circumstances are manipulated by Ariel in such a way that the two, in fact, fall in love at first sight.
To Ariel, Ferdinand appears as “A thing divine; for nothing natural / I ever saw so noble” (16). Ferdinand also becomes awestruck: “O, if a virgin, / And your affection not gone forth, I’ll make you / The queen of Naples” (17). Their marriage will serve the construction of hierarchy by uniting the opposing sides so that things can peacefully return to their “natural” state by the end of the play. Although this is somewhat different than how things began, love must be treated as “natural”, so it isn’t a true digression from the “natural” state of things before Prospero’s dukedom was usurped.
Prospero has separated Ferdinand from his father so he can accomplish his purpose which is to restore his dukedom through the marriage of his daughter to Alonso’s son. Finally, we will examine the aristocrats. More specifically, we will examine how Prospero’s plan to regain his dukedom becomes ultimately successful. Prospero makes Alonso believe that he’s lost his son, which leads him to an acknowledgement of his guilt. Alonso’s suffering causes a change in him by the end of the play. He asks forgiveness from Prospero and restores his dukedom.
Thus is another lesson learned through the consequences of usurpation. Both Alonso’s deep regret for his son’s death and his desire for reconciliation are seen in his response to Prospero commenting how he too has lost a daughter. With sudden enthusiasm, Alonso expresses his wish that Ferdinand and Miranda could be king and queen of Naples. With Alonso willing to unite the two families politically, Prospero has accomplished his purpose in bringing the couple together and is finally ready to reunite father and son.
Gonzalo realizes how great their accomplishments have been on the voyage. In only one voyage, Alonso’s daughter found her husband in Tunis; Ferdinand found a wife, Prospero found his dukedom; and they all found their true (or “natural”) identity on the island. In conclusion, as the play progresses, Prospero constructs the hierarchy in such a way as to return things to their “natural” state. Any type of usurpation, whether attempted or successful, will always end up with power back in its rightful place, and most of the time with a lesson learned.
We have seen that the play, in its entirety, is simply a series of plots designed (or constructed) by Prospero, in order to restore things to their “natural” state; the most notable being, of course, the restoration of his dukedom. We have also seen that, in the end, power is in its rightful owner’s hands. Caliban learns a lesson in his attempt to usurp power from Prospero, and Alonso also learns a valuable lesson even though 12 years had passed since he assisted in Prospero’s overthrow. Works Cited Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. New York: Dover, 1999.