Obviously the dominant character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero is most often portrayed as just that: the Supreme Chess Master, the Sovereign Puppeteer. He imperiously floats in and out of scenes (even when Shakespeare doesn’t mention him), hanging about the wings to observe and approve Ariel’s achievements and to plot occasional diversions for Ferdinand and torments for Caliban—always in charge, always above the fray. He serenely gathers his enemies around his cell for his even-tempered, if condescending, forgiveness.
Often identified with the Bard at career’s end, an old man with flowing robes and beard, bidding adieu to his books and magic and to “ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves” (5.1.33), with a fifteen-year-old daughter, he could be anywhere between thirty and ninety. Perhaps Shakespeare meant this tempest, this brush with revenge, to be not the expression of an old man’s indignation, pique and superior power, but rather an important lesson for a younger man on his way to maturity, which includes among its qualities forgiveness, peace, and humanity.
Many lines suggest a younger man, confused by anger, deeply wronged by his brother and his king, and genuinely impassioned by the opportunity for retribution presented by “bountiful Fortune . . . [that] hath mine enemies / Brought to this shore” (1.2.178 80). Quickened by the “most auspicious star” upon which his “zenith doth depend,” he must expedite his revenge or watch his “fortunes . . . ever after droop” (1.2.181 84). For twelve years, caught between despair over his “extirpation” from Milan and the “fortitude” he derived from the “cherubin . . . that did preserve me” (1.2.152 54), he has ruled a diminished “dukedom”—Miranda, Ariel, Caliban, and his “meaner ministers” (3.3.87). Now, at last, he has power to get even.
Prospero’s agitation and anger, symbolized by the storm, punctuate the long family-history exposition. Miranda usually fidgets or nods off—as teenagers are wont to do at such times—requiring that Prospero call her attention back to his narrative. But consider the context of the alerts: “My brother and thy uncle, call'd Antonio— / I pray thee mark me—that a brother should / Be so perfidious” (1.2.66 68); “Thy false uncle— / Dost thou attend me?" (1.2.77 78); “Now he was / The ivy which had hid my princely trunk, / And suck’d my verdure out on’t. Thou attend'st not!” (1.2.85 87); “Hence his ambition growing— / Dost thou hear?” (1.2.105 106). Every time, Antonio is the topic, illuminating, like a thunderbolt, the focus of Prospero’s anger. Miranda’s boredom or somnolence is irrelevant.
Then Miranda meets Ferdinand, which rattles Prospero’s composure in another direction. Three asides during their first conversation express Prospero’s delight that his spell is working: “It goes on, I see, / As my soul prompts it” (1.2.430 31); “At the first sight / They have chang’d eyes” (1.2.441 42); “It [my spell] works” (1.2.494). Each time, moreover, he gleefully adds, “Ariel, I'll set you free for this.” Rather than, “Ho-hum, just as I expected, the spell’s working; nice work, Ariel,” the tone I hear is, “Hey! Wow! The spell’s working. I owe you big-time for this, Ariel! Yes!”
Sometimes Prospero’s outbursts are calculated, as when Miranda demands, “Why speaks my father so ungently?” (1.2.445), at Prospero’s attempts to make “this swift business . . . uneasy, lest too light winning / Make the prize light” (1.2.451 53). After forty more lines of his chiding, she assures Ferdinand that “my father’s of a better nature, sir, / Than he appears by speech. This is unwonted / Which now came from him” (1.2.496 99). Later, he is beset by spontaneous agitation when his joy in entertaining the lovers overshadows Caliban’s plot. Ferdinand notes, “Your father’s in some passion / That works him strongly.” Miranda replies, “Never till this day / Saw I him touch’d with anger, so distemper’d” (4.1.143 45). Prospero himself admits to being “vex’d” and having a troubled brain and “beating mind” (4.1.158 63).
The truest test of Prospero’s changing emotions, however, occurs as Act 5 opens. Prospero appears in full regalia, boasting of the certainty of his success: “Now does my project gather to a head. / My charms crack not; my spirits obey; and Time / Goes upright with his carriage” (5.1.1 3). Reporting on the “King and ’s followers,” Ariel observes, “Your charm so strongly works ’em / That if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender” (5.1.17 20). Would become tender signifies that Prospero’s affections (i.e., emotions) are not affectionate (i.e., tender); if Prospero were already leaning toward compassion, would Ariel use these words?
Prospero queries, “Thinks’t thou so, spirit?” “I would, sir, were I human.” “And mine shall,” resolves Prospero. The next twelve lines dissolve Prospero’s anger, confusion, distemper, and vengefulness. “Have you,” he asks Ariel, “who are but air, a feeling for their afflictions, and shall I, a member of the human race with human passions as keenly felt, not be more humanely mov’d than you are?” (5.1.21 24, paraphrased). Ariel has reminded Prospero, not of his power, but of his humanity.
Shakespeare has revealed a man as furious as the storm, who increasingly relishes the discomfiture of his enemies until now, when Ariel suggests a better way. “Though with their high wrongs I am strook to th’ quick,” Prospero continues, “Yet, with my nobler reason, ’gainst my fury / Do I take part” (5.1.25 27). Because “The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” (5.1.27 28), Prospero opts for mercy: “They being penitent, / The sole drift of my purpose doth extend / Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel” (5.1.28 30).
Commentators on Prospero as Shakespeare’s end-of-career alter-ego sometimes merge the two “farewells to the stage.” It is well to remember that “Our revels” refers specifically to the masque prepared for the newly betrothed to occupy their attention while they’re being chaste. “Ye elves” follows Prospero’s revealing change of heart: Immediately after instructing Ariel to release the captives, he adds, “My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore, / And they shall be themselves” (5.1.31 32). Ariel leaves to “fetch them, sir” (5.1.32), whereupon Prospero “traces a magic circle with his staff” and begins, “Ye elves of hills,” etc., and all you other creatures “by whose aid . . . I have bedimm’d / The noontide sun” and made huge storms that uprooted trees, “and all my other spells and charms—But this rough magic / I here abjure,” and when I’ve restored those now “in my pow’r” (3.3.90), “I’ll break my staff, / Bury it certain fadoms in the earth,/ And deeper than ever did plummet sound / I’ll drown my book” (5.1.33 57).
Recalling that his books and studies prompted Prospero’s “abdication” of Milan—“me (poor man) my library / Was dukedom large enough” (1.2.109 10); “Knowing I lov’d my books, [Gonzalo] furnish’d me / From mine own library with volumes that/ I prize [present tense] above my dukedom” (1.2.166 68)—we can appreciate the powerful transformation he has undergone. As much as he loved his books and his power, thanks to Ariel he now understands, after much turmoil, that the greater goods are forgiveness, peace, and humanity.
(All line numbers refer to The Riverside Shakespeare [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974]; emphases are the author’s.)