Prospero, the title character in Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, is betrayed, stripped of his title of Duke, banished from his city in a small boat, with only his two-year-old daughter and his favorite books. This act of betrayal causes him to seeth for many years and seek revenge. Landing on a deserted island, it took twelve years to study and gain the power of magic to control the elements and enact his revenge. At the perfect time, he unleashes a terrible storm that washes everyone overboard and onto his island. They are now in Prospero’s control and he orchestrates an elaborate hoax on them to remind them of the part they played in his exile. Things look grim for them, but, at the last moment, he takes a cue from his daughter and uses another kind of magic, which surprises us all. Does Shakespeare break the fourth wall and foreshadow his own retirement from the magical world of Theatre? It warrants a closer look.
It all starts when Prospero’s enemies innocently pass by his island, in ships traveling back to their home in Verona, from the marriage of the King’s daughter in Africa. It was this king, Alonzo, and Prospero’s own brother who conspired against him who are on this ship. They thought that Prospero was dead. It was Prospero’s friend, Gonzalo, a Italian Noble, who helped him escape in the both rather than be killed. Gonzalo is also here. He ensnares them in a tempest that deposits them on his shore. He does not seem surprised that the King’s son is among them, nor does he seem surprised that his captive servant, Ariel had separated the son from the King, so that neither knew the fate of the other. They both assumed the other was killed by the storm and mourn their loss.
It was all part of Prospero’s plan. With the perfect conditions in place he decides it is time to take his revenge, Prospero does not do that. Observing the guileless love of his daughter for other humans, he realizes that revenge would no longer provide the satisfaction he once thought it would.
First, it is important to see how powerful this magic had become. It had not been enough to stop the betrayal and banishment so it must have become more powerful after he arrived on the island. Prospero’s magic was learned from his books. The same books that he preferred over ruling his people, while in Milan and the same books that were put in his boat when he was banished.
His powers are not realized until he gets to the island and finds Ariel, a sprite, trapped in a tree trunk by an evil witch. He uses his magic to free the sprite but it is not mentioned how or if it is used again until the beginning of the events in this play, except his daughter seems to be familiar with his use of it when she refers to his “art” 1.1.2. It is this magic that he uses to control events in this story and would have enough power to enact vengeance if that is what he wanted to but does not.
Early in the play, Prospero speaks of causing the ships to toss to and fro on the waves and frighten his enemies but not enough to hurt them. He says:
“The direful spectacle of the wreck, which touch’d/The very virtue of compassion in thee,/I have with such provision in mine art/So safely ordered that there is no soul—/No, not so much perdition as an hair /Betid to any creature in the vessel” 1.2.116-121.
Although it appears that Prospero is causing something evil with his magic, he had been very careful to make sure the passengers were safe. This may be considered a form of revenge because he frightened them, but it is not the sort of revenge that we have seen previously from Shakespeare.
How he came to know that those particular ships contained his enemies is not made clear, but he does know and uses it to his advantage. He then acknowledges to his daughter that he is humbled by the assistance that nature gives him at his more powerful moment when he declares:
“Know thus far forth./By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune,/Now my dear lady, hath mine enemies /Brought to this shore; and by my prescience/I find my zenith doth depend upon/A most auspicious star, whose influence/If now I court not but omit, my fortunes/Will ever after droop” 1.2.293-300.
A properly placed star was helping him achieve his goal, and he cannot do without. The magic had enough power to overcome the witch Sycorax’s spell that even she could not undo. He brags:
“It was a torment/To lay upon the damn’d, which Sycorax/Could not again undo: it was mine art,/When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape/The pine and let thee out” 1.2.426-430.
It also, indicates that he needs Ariel to complete his purposes while on the island.
Others feel the effects of his magic differently. When asked by Prospero if she remembers living anywhere else, Miranda felt confused about whether her past was a memory or a dream she responds,
“‘Tis far off/And rather like a dream than an assurance/That my remembrance warrants” 1.2.138-140.
To others, the magic is a reflection of the speaker as in this passage where Adrian Sebastian, Gonzalo, and Antonio encounter the magic and attach a scent or an image to the island. Adrian is a noble and friend to the King, Alonzo and he and Gonzalo who was a friend of Prospero’ and helped him to escape both experiences the island pleasantly. On the other hand, Antonio the betraying brother to Prospero and Sebastian, the wannabe brother of the King experience it totally different and thinks the others are mistaken. It is two different conversations happening at once.
ADRIAN Though this island seem to be desert,—
SEBASTIAN Ha, ha, ha!/So, you’re paid.
ADRIAN Uninhabitable and almost inaccessible,—
ANTONIO He could not miss’t.
ADRIAN It must needs be of subtle, tender and delicate/temperance.
ANTONIO Temperance was a delicate wench.
SEBASTIAN Ay, and a subtle; as he most learnedly/delivered.
ADRIAN The air breathes upon us here most sweetly.
SEBASTIAN As if it had lungs and rotten ones.
ANTONIO Or as ’twere perfumed by a fen.
GONZALO Here is everything advantageous to life.
ANTONIO True; save means to live.
SEBASTIAN Of that there’s none, or little.
GONZALO How lush and lusty the grass looks! How/green!
ANTONIO The ground indeed is tawny.
SEBASTIAN With an eye of green in’t.
ANTONIO He misses not much.
SEBASTIAN No; he doth but mistake the truth totally” 2.1.35-59.
As powerful as Prospero’s magic seems to be, he evidently did not have enough mastery of it to prevent himself and Miranda from banishment, but having practiced for twelve years he was then able to use it to extract vengeance if he chose. As hard as he had made his heart, he softened it in the end. After hearing his daughter express compassion at witnessing the tempest, when she pleaded with him to stop, he still did not relent. It wasn’t until after he saw his daughter fall in love with Ferdinand that he began to soften. It is Ariel’s tender words that turn the tide for this vengeful man turned proud father and reinstated Duke of Milan.
Ariel tells him that everything is ready just as Prospero had instructed and they could not escape without his permission. The stage is set. Ariel points out that the friend of Prospero’s, the one he called sir, Gonzalo, has tears running down his face. If he could just see that, may Prospero’s feelings would be touched and soft towards him. He says:
“Him that you term’d, sir, ‘The good old lord Gonzalo;’/ His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops/From eaves of reeds. Your charm so strongly works ’em/hat if you now beheld them, your affections/ Would become tender” 5.1.15-19.
Prospero responds, “Dost thou think so, spirit” 5.1. 19
To which Ariel says: “Mine would sir, were I human’ 5.1.30.
And then in an unconditional act of kindness mostly directed at Gonzalo but also the father of his daughter’s true love, he forgives.Whether they asked or not, or acknowledge their fault or not, or even deserved it or not, they are forgiven unconditionally.
Prospero says: “And mine shall” 5.1.20.
In this play a father’s love for his daughter and his love for a friend overcomes vengeance. He not only forgives his enemies, but he also surrenders his powerful magic and his books and leaves them behind on the island and returns home to his family. This Christ-like action creates the ultimate romance when love for others is given without stipulation. He no longer needs the magic of the books because he has found the magic of forgiveness.
This story is how it went down, and what we can discover about Shakespeare himself in the last play of his career. Many believe that Shakespeare modeled Prospero after himself as a magician who used tools of revenge throughout his career in the theatre. He often poked fun at the Royals and society for various reasons but in the end, his retirement would come as he realizes an unconditional love for the opportunity it gave him. This play surpasses the moral lesson built into each play to be the crowning jewel.