In reading Act I of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Prospero’s character is complex, making him an interesting element to focus on. He orchestrates many of the Act’s events, exhibiting many facets, from deriving great pleasure from his daughter’s smile to how demanding he can be on those who serve him.
While Prospero loses his rightful ruling position over Milan at the hand of his brother and is exiled to an island with his daughter, Miranda, he still seems to hold power, both influential and magical. By way of fate, a ship carries his brother and others near to the island and, through the shear will of Prospero, it is tossed about the sea, caught in a Tempest as reparation for the pains he has suffered. This retribution appears to be warranted, leaving me, the reader, glad for Prospero’s chance to demonstrate to his brother the ways he has suffered. But the question remains, how far will Prospero go? When a distraught Miranda asks the same question and it is revealed that none aboard the ship are physically harmed, Prospero appears to be a fair and just soul.
By enslaving the island’s only native inhabitant, Caliban, the animal-like son of a witch, as well as Ariel, an ethereal sprite he released from the holdings of a curse, Prospero’s duality is revealed. He may be too kind hearted to fully destroy the ship’s men, but he has certainly bound others to serve him with an unrelenting exhibition of power. Where does this fit within the ideals of a man who desires to serve his people and who desires to serve his daughter’s best interests? Perhaps he truly believes he helped Caliban by teaching him to communicate, but he is unwilling to see how he might be usurping Caliban’s rightful place as King of the island. He certainly freed Ariel from the pine tree but, as Ariel fulfills each of Prospero’s requests to repay this debt, he finds yet another request awaiting him.
What do these inconsistencies say about Prospero’s character as a whole? Is he really at such odds with himself, or does the text later reveal what ties these traits together? Perhaps these servants are used to show dedication from an earthly as well as spiritual world as each continues to server Prospero regardless of his brother’s refusal to do so. Even the old wise man Gonzales seems eager to help him by sending him to the island with provisions.