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Shakespeare's Characters: Prospero (The Tempest)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 16. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

Tried by suffering, Prospero proves its strengthening qualities. Far from succumbing to the blow, it is not until it has fallen that he displays his true, far-reaching, and terrible power, and becomes the great irresistible magician which Shakespeare himself had so long been. His power is not understood by his daughter, who is but a child, but it is felt by his enemies. He plays with them as he pleases, compels them to repent their past treatment of him, and then pardons them with a calmness of superiority to which Timon could never have attained, but which is far from being that all-obliterating tenderness with which Imogen and Hermione forgive remorseful sinners.

There is less charity towards the offenders in Prospero's absolution than that element of contempt which has so long and so exclusively filled Shakespeare's soul. His forgiveness, the oblivion of a scornful indifference, is not so much that of the strong man who knows his power to crush if need be, as that of the wisdom which is no longer affected by outward circumstance.

Richard Garnett aptly observes, in his critical introduction to the play in the "Irving Edition," that Prospero finds it easy to forgive because, in his secret soul, he sets very little value on the dukedom he has lost, and is, therefore, roused to very little indignation by the treachery which deprived him of it. His daughter's happiness is the sole thing which greatly interests him now, and he carries his indifference to worldly matters so far that, without any outward compulsion, he breaks his magic wand and casts his books into the sea. Resuming his place among the ranks of ordinary men, he retains nothing but his inalienable treasure, of experience and reflection. I quote the following passage from Garnett on account of its remarkable correspondence with the general conception of Shakespeare's development set forth in this book.

"That this Quixotic height of magnanimity should not surprise, that it should seem quite in keeping with the character, proves how deeply this character has been drawn from Shakespeare's own nature. Prospero is not Shakespeare, but the play is in a certain measure autobiographical. ... It shows us more than anything else what the discipline of life had made of Shakespeare at fifty — a fruit too fully matured to be suffered to hang much longer on the tree. Conscious superiority untinged by arrogance, genial scorn for the mean and base, mercifulness into which contempt entered very largely, serenity excluding passionate affection while admitting tenderness, intellect overtopping morality but in no way blighting or perverting it — such are the mental features of him in whose development the man of the world kept pace with the poet, and who now shone as the consummate perfection of both."

In other words, it is Shakespeare's own nature which overflows into Prospero, and thus the magician represents not merely the noble-minded great man, but the genius, imaginatively delineated, not, as in Hamlet, psychologically analysed. Audibly and visibly does Prospero's genius manifest itself, visible and audible also the inward and outward opposition he combats.

The two figures in which this spiritual power and this resistance are embodied are the most admirable productions of an artist's powers in this or any other age. Ariel is a supernatural, Caliban a bestially natural being, and both have been endowed with a human soul. They were not seen, but created.

Prospero is the master-mind, the man of the future, as shown by his control over the forces of Nature. He passes as a magician, and Shakespeare found his prototype, as far as external accessories were concerned, in a scholar of mark and man of high principles, Dr. Dee, who died in 1607. This Dr. Dee believed himself possessed of powers to conjure up spirits, good and bad, and on this account enjoyed a great reputation in his day. A man owning even a small share of the scientific knowledge of our times would inevitably have been regarded as a powerful magician at that date. In the creation of Prospero, therefore, Shakespeare unconsciously anticipated the results of time. He not merely gave him a magic wand, but created a poetical embodiment of the forces of Nature as his attendant spirit.
Brandes: William Shakespeare.


Prospero, duke of Milan, who had been deposed by his brother and the king of Naples, "an enemy inveterate" (Act I. ii.), and exposed at sea in an open boat, raises by his power of enchantment, a violent tempest, and causes his enemies, who are on their return from Africa, to be cast ashore on the island, where for many years he has found refuge with his daughter. By wise and prompt direction of the agency of spirits, over whom his knowledge has given him command, he improves the opportunity to strike the King of Naples with remorse, to convert him from an enemy into an ally, to bring about the marriage of his own daughter with his son, regain his right in an independent dukedom, and take noble revenge for the treachery of his brother. The supernatural aids at the command of Prospero give occasion for highly picturesque incident, but his success, and the interest of the play, are not less due to the discretion, self command, and vigour, which he displays in availing himself of them. Such qualities might appear inconsistent with his original loss of position, but this is explained by his misfortune being ascribed to his neglect of the active virtues for the sake of knowledge; and it is the very pith and marrow of the argument and conduct of the play, to show what are the exercises and what are the impulses by which in a noble nature such a want of balance may be corrected, and how when studious and administrative energy and moral purpose at last work together in harmony, the coarser, ruder, and baser talents of mere men of the world, are weak as the ways of children.
Lloyd: Critical Essays on the Plays of Shakespeare.


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