Discuss Prosperos journey in Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' in relation to his magic and his humanity and the changes he undergoes.

Essay by ellrua March 2010

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Shakespeare’s so called ‘late plays’ including works such as ‘The Tempest’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale’ present the audience with a world of incomparable wealth of interest in the unseen world of magic and adventure, all the while conveying Shakespeare’s unique capabilities with the English language and his risk-taking attitude towards theatre. Although this sudden change in attitude towards a risky side of presenting his plays, Shakespeare still maintains the overall product found in many of his plays; that of the ‘journey’ of a character often ending in self-realisation and eventually death. All of these ‘journeys’ are neither of magical or even fantastical nature, but simply of human nature and, in the end, it is the human aspect of theatre, and of life, that Shakespeare attempts to convey. The journey of Prospero presents the story of a rogue, untrustworthy man who once chose self-benefit over serving his country and consequently paid the price, but he is, abnormally, given a second chance.

Although initially presented to the audience as a tragedy, Shakespeare writes ‘The Tempest’ with a much more realistic take on events, combing both tragedy and comedy in a representation of what can be considered to be ‘real life’. Beginning the tale in the midst of a frantic scene upon a ship in a storm; “a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning,” certainly creates the tone of a tragedy. Prospero’s daughter’s statement; “If by your art, my dearest father, you have put the wild waters in this roar,” initiates the magical side of the story, but also signposts the beginning of the turnaround in Prospero’s so far tragic journey. Although revenge is still in his mind due to his usurpation by his brother some time ago in Milan, for the sake of his daughter Prospero ensures that “There’s no harm done,” revealing very early on the more human, possibly caring, side to the man. However his intentions are made clear through the description of his past; “Twelve years, since thy father was the Duke of Milan,” creating a spiteful tone with obvious objective of revenge. His claim that his brother was once “so perfidious,” displays clearly his feelings towards Antonio, but the story of his past presents his true character. Having decided that “the liberal arts without a parallel,” should be his main concern in life, he claims “the government I cast upon my brother,” but being honest in saying “to my state grew stranger, being transported and rapt in secret studies.” This first scene from Shakespeare is very flat and would be widely considered uninteresting in theatre; however it is through this scene that he displays his power to do what he may with the English language, conveying his control and confidence as a writer.

As well as offering the audience vital information concerning the background to the revenge plot of the play, Shakespeare introduces, rather blatantly, the irresponsible, arrogant character of Prospero, further tales of which certainly do not endear him to the audience. Upon introduction to characters such as Caliban, the audience is allowed to perceive the cold-hearted, typically selfish nature of man that is present in Prospero. Caliban’s claim the “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,” shows Prospero’s necessity for power and upon the imprisonment of Caliban within his magical powers, Prospero makes clear his obsession with possession and control, not only over land, but also of other people, especially his daughter.

The first change in Prospero comes fairly early in the play, during Act I scene ii, whilst introducing Ferdinand to Miranda. From a distance she perceives Ferdinand as “as thing divine,” although having never seen another man before, but there is an overshadowing of deception in this act. Ferdinand, being the son to the King of Naples, presents a direct link to Prospero, creating a relationship upon which he can plot and scheme for his revenge, all the while within arm’s reach of a contact of his brother’s. However, allowing this relationship between these two young people to build up would appear a more human act, not necessarily for his own benefit, entailing the idea that maybe Prospero is not as cold-hearted after all. Presenting challenges for Ferdinand in order to test his new-found love for Miranda; “thou...hast put thyself upon this island as a spy, to win it from me, and Lord on’t.” This attention to detail from the father figure is clearly of human character, not of magical, drawing upon the suggestion that Prospero is moving away from his magic here and more towards a caring father figure.

Unfortunately this impression is short lived as, after causing Alonso to sleep and Antonio to plot a murder and usurpation, Prospero calls upon Ariel to wake Alonso moments before the attempted murder, “For else his project dies,” thus revealing the fact that he himself would like the revenge and is simply tricking Antonio into such dreadful acts as murder, only to whip the chance away from under him. This would appear to be a step back in the journey of Prospero from a magical dictator into a humane character, but in contradiction he has also saved Alonso’s life. It is therefore unclear and appears to be a transition stage in the journey of Prospero.

As celebrations of the unity of Miranda and Ferdinand begin in the Masque scene, Prospero is initially threatening; “If thou dost break her virgin-knot...No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall,” showing his unkind, controlling, possessive nature once again. Going on to “Bestow upon the eyes...some vanity of mine art,” Prospero shows his enjoyment of his magic and his ability to use it for good as opposed to destruction and psychological manipulation. Again, although concerning his magical ability, this incident reveals Prospero’s more father-like, endearing personality, not something previously seen within the play, another step in the right direction in what is certainly a journey of human emotions. This scene presents the audience with something very unexpected and peculiar however. After plotting and scheming his revenge for years upon this island, during this scene Prospero manages to forget the corrupt, evil plan and forget Caliban’s actions of revenge upon Prospero himself. This unprecedented event shakes the once controlling, obsessive character and the happiness perceived through him during this scene is surely a factor towards the final step in his journey.

Interestingly enough however, it is from the initial presentation of Prospero carrying out such acts as to cause the storm and to induce Miranda into sleep using his magical powers, that the audience can see the change towards the end of the play. Even at the start of Act V, Prospero is still intent upon revenge; “Now does my project gather to a head,” but it is as a result of Ariel’s words that Prospero takes the final step in what has been a long and arduous journey. The grief and pain induced in all involved in the shipwreck by the magic of Prospero is beginning to take its affect upon Ariel who, in turn, makes an appeal to Prospero’s human nature; “if you now beheld them, your affections would become tender...mine would, sir, were I human.” This explicit exposition of human emotions within Prospero shows clearly the journey taken.

The final step in the journey of Prospero is held within the recognition of the pain he has caused, the evil he has previously called upon; “graves at my command have waked their sleepers,” and finally decides; “I’ll drown my book.” With a change in personality comes a change in appearance with Prospero, “I will discase me, a present myself as I was sometime in Milan,” before addressing Ariel and setting the spirit free for the last time, voicing his emotions; “I shall miss thee.” Having manipulated Antonio and Sebastian into performing evil deeds, Prospero turns these acts upon them; “were I so minded, I here could pluck his highness’ frown upon you and justify you traitors,” showing that, even though the transition from magical man into mere human is complete, his intentions of self-preservation are still prevalent and releasing knowledge of his past magical acts is not in his purpose. Prospero’s final act in search of good is to reunite Alonso with his son.

In conclusion Prospero has undergone a very human journey, experiencing the extremes of emotions. A man once obsessed with magic, so much so even to lose his power over Milan, has experienced a change and has righted many of his wrongs. Psychologically and physically Prospero is a different man from the original, power-obsessed ‘wizard’ presented to the audience at the beginning of the play. Having seen the transition of this man from fixation to human kindness, it is clear to the audience that he has gone through a distinctive transformation back into human nature, however it is not all happy endings. Whilst addressing the fact that finally “what strength I have’s mine own” in his final speech, Prospero also highlights the final event; “my ending is despair,” that death is coming for him, the human event marking the end of all journeys.

Bibliography - 'The Tempest' William Shakespeare - Penguin Shakespeare, published 2007