In Act I of “The Tempest,” William Shakespeare paints Prospero as a character who possesses a great deal of power, quite analogous to that of the King of England. Attributing this power to his education in “liberal arts,” Prospero’s enchanting abilities appear to stem from his study of books, the donning of a magical cloak, and by carrying a magical staff, much as the King’s crown and vestiges, although not powerful themselves, lend to the visual definition of his authority. While each of these items do supply Prospero with the ability to cast spells, it is his “art” of conversation that affords him the most power.
As Paul Brown remarks in “‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism,” Prospero calls to his various listeners “and invites them to recognize themselves as subjects of his discourse, as beneficiaries of his civil largess.” (Brown 218) The technique with which Prospero bestows his “civil largess” upon his daughter, Miranda, and his servant, Ariel, varies in degree of applied patience, yet it conclusively achieves the desired effect as each bend to his will. While Caliban, Prospero’s slave, offers the vilest resistance, Prospero demands compliance by employing the use of painful threats, only occasionally requiring additional reinforcement through action. Prospero?s command of language, ultimately his most useful tool, influences and manipulates the thoughts, ideas and behaviors of all the play’s participants, including those of the audience.
Miranda’s character is akin to the citizens of England, each governed by the power and guidance of their rulers. Through suggestive conversation, Prospero educates Miranda on the subject of their history, molding her perspective to ready her for a future orchestration of events. As he begins the tale, Prospero asks Miranda to, “pluck my magic garment from me. So, [laying down his magic cloak and staff] Lie there my art.” (Shakespeare 14, 24) Here Prospero engages in conversation exclusively, making a point to shed all other forms of power. With this simple action, Shakespeare demonstrates the innate power of Prospero’s persuasion and how it is used to educate and thus govern Miranda with the provision of a singular perspective. This directly reflects England’s own normative view as colonizer, enforcing the belief that English culture is superior both within and beyond the country’s borders.
Prospero takes pride in his ability to educate. He speaks passionately of this role in regard to Miranda, “Here have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit than other princess’ can, that have more time for vainer hours and tutors not so careful.” (Shakespeare 19, 171) Prospero has been grooming Miranda to be obedient all her life, and she, a naive student, exclaims, “Heavens thank you for ‘t!” (Shakespeare 20, 175) In his technique of reinforcing his daughter’s loyalty and attention by repeatedly asking, “Dost thou attend me?” (Shakespeare 16, 78) requires Miranda to engage in the dialogue and actively confirm, “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness,” (Shakespeare 17, 107) In this way, Miranda reflects the desired perspective as it is presented to her, satisfying Prospero’s need for loyalty and support in his plot to resume his dukedom. As Brown explains, ?A major strategy of this scheme is to engineer another courtship between Miranda and the son of his enemy “his daughter having been duly educated for such a role.” (Brown 219) In grooming Miranda to marry Ferdinand, Prospero intends to place her like a pawn among royalty, ensuring his ties to political authority.
In Ariel, Prospero’s servant, Shakespeare depicts an English colonizer, one sympathetic toward the American Indians. Ariel proves useful in forging a foundation for Prospero’s new world order but must be commanded to continue in the face of unpleasant tasks, particularly those he believes will cause harm. Applying the approach used with Miranda, Prospero begins to question “Dost thou forget from what torment I did free thee?” (Shakespeare 22, 250) Ariel challenges that he has not. With this exchange Prospero begins a detailed call and response, “Hast thou forgot the foul witch Sycorax? Thou hast. Where was she born?” (Shakespeare 23, 261) Recounting this story of how Prospero freed Ariel from the witch’s curse actively recalls the details of Arial’s torment and debt to Prospero for release. Ironically, this freedom from the pine has merely released him into a new form of bondage. (Brown, 220) According to Brown, “This operation of constant reminding acts as ‘symbolic violence.’ What is really at issue is the underlining of a power relation.” (Brown 220) Illustrating a bending will, Ariel replies, ?Pardon, master. I will be correspondent to command and do my spriting gently.” (Shakespeare 24) As Ariel submits, Prospero is able to expand his power to that of the spritely realm with Ariel to do his bidding.
Caliban, having occupied the island long before Prospero, represents the idea of “savage” as it exists within the colonization of Ireland and America. Prospero tries in vain to educate Caliban, to civilize him in the ways in which Prospero is accustomed. Miranda too, as an extension of Prospero, teaches Caliban the language common to her and her father. In regard to this education, Caliban is not grateful for their “gift,” but rather feels enslaved by it. “You taught me language and my profit on ‘t is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language!” (Shakespeare 27, 367) Before the arrival of Prospero and Miranda, Caliban understands his thoughts perfectly well, explaining that they didn’t give him knowledge, but only the means to express what he already knows in a way they understand. He too can understand their demands as they bark orders at him. Brown believes Caliban “recognizes himself as a linguistic subject of the master language. Caliban’s refusal marks him as obdurate yet he must voice this in a curse in the language of civility … Whatever Caliban does with this gift announces his capture by it.” (Brown 220) In his unwillingness to easily submit, Caliban poses a real challenge for Prospero. While still embracing his mastery over communication, Prospero must change his approach. Keeping the upper hand, he incorporates the use of threats backed by real action, making Caliban submit out of fear.
At the play’s end, as so ordered by Shakespeare, the shipwrecked aristocrats suffer to Prospero’s content, extracting sufficient remorse from their maddened state with no lasting harm dealt by his hand. His daughter, too, is arranged neatly in the arms of King Alonzo’s son, assuring her royal future and his. Ariel is freed for a job well done, and even the stubborn Caliban all too easily sees the light after falling further from grace, accepting Prospero as a more desirable master than Stephano. Each fragment is neatly tied up with one exception. In what way does Shakespeare deal with Prospero?
By educating the island inhabitants as he sees fit, Prospero gets an unforeseen education of his own. During the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, Prospero is startled with the realization of his aloneness without her. Fiedler with the idea that Shakespeare “appears more and more to divest himself of the very power he has so relentlessly sought. … even as Prospero’s game plan succeeds he himself is played out, left without a move as power over his daughter slips away.” (Brown 226) Prospero speaks of this dissolve of power, as well as the erasure of existence when he says, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded in sleep.” (Shakespeare 70, 156) Caliban’s attempt on Prospero’s life leads Prospero to look more closely at his inability to civilize the savage. He raves, “A Devil, born a Devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick; on whom my pains, humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost!” (Shakespeare 71, 188) And lastly, in an effort of revenge on his brother, Prospero learns compassion, characterized by his epiphany that “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” (Shakespeare 75, 28) Brown believes, “At the ‘close’ of the play Prospero is in danger of becoming the other to the narrative declaration of his own project, which is precisely the ambivalent position Caliban occupies.” (Brown 228) and is unsatisfied with how Shakespeare handles Prospero’s abandonment of magical external power with no “triumph for colonialism” (Brown 228). With this I disagree.
At the time Shakespeare writes “The Tempest,” no societal answers existed in response to the play’s questions. Shakespeare appears to synthesize the culmination of Prospero’s lessons to demonstrate the hope for England of one day being wiser, more accepting of others, and willing to forfeit control where it already exists rather than to attempt the civilization of the world. As the rest of Prospero’s powers fade, his reign over language is not lost. “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, and what strength I have ‘s mine own.” (Shakespeare 86, 1) The power of persuasion has always been an innate part of his being only to fade when Prospero himself expires. He uses his remaining capacity for language to appeal to the audience. He seeks their applause and thus forgiveness for his character flaws. This may also be a plea from Shakespeare himself to forgive weak plot point. The questions raised are left to us, the audience to ponder and answer for ourselves.
Shakespeare, William, et al. “The Tempest” Ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. William Shakespeare, The Tempest; A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin?s, 2000, 10-87
Brown, Paul. “‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine”; The Tempest as the Discourse of Colonialism” William Shakespeare, “The Tempest;” A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin?s, 2000, 205-229