Shakespeare And Prospero


Shakespeare And Prospero Essay, Research Paper

There can be no doubt that The Tempest contains numerous references

to the theater, and while many of Shakespeare’s plays make reference to the

dramatic arts and their analogy to real life (e.g., “all the world’s a * stage”),

it is in this, his last play, that the Bard most explicitly acknowledges that the

audience is viewing a show. Thus, in the play’s final scene (Act I, scene i., ll.148ff),

Prospero tells his prospective son-in-law Ferdinand that the revels at hand

are almost at an end, that the actors are

about to retire, and that the “insubstantial pageant” of which he has been

a part has reached its conclusion. It is, in fact, tempting to equate the

character of Prospero with that of his creator, the playwright


When Prospero sheds his magician’s robes in favor of his civilian attire

as the Duke of Milan, with the benefit of hindsight that this is

Shakespeare’s last work and his crowning achievement, we are disposed to associate the

learned sorcerer with the Bard of Avon. How far we are to take this

identification, however, is moot.

Prospero of The Tempest, like Shakespeare in his late Romance period, is a

mature man with a daughter (Shakespeare, in fact, had two daughters, his

only son dying in childhood) at the height of his intellectual and

creative powers. Prospero is a polymath, a scholar with a magic book from an entire

library that so absorbed him that it was, “dukedom large enough” (I, ii.

l.110). Prospero displays a tinge of regret for having neglected his

worldly office as Duke of Milan in favor of the life of the mind. Similarly, as

virtually all of Shakespeare’s biographers have observed, the Elizabethan

playwright’s knowledge was exceedingly broad, leading many to speculate

that he pursued a number of vocations before settling into a life in the

theater, and we know from textual correspondences that Shakespeare was broadly read

and that he continued to absorb knowledge from diverse publications until his

death. We can also speculate that Shakespeare regretted remaining away

from his home in Stratford, at least insofar as his career in London kept

him away from his children. Lastly, following The Tempest, Shakespeare,

like Prospero, retired to civilian life, there being a period of five or six

years between his composition of that play and his untimely death at the

age of fifty-two.

Beyond these surface biographical parallels, Prospero’s role is less that

of a character than that of the imaginative or creative force behind the play

itself. After the pageant of the goddesses who bless the union of Miranda

and Ferdinand, Prospero explains that the effigies which they have seen

are “Spirits, which by mine art/I have from their confines call’d to enact/My

present fancies” (IV, i., ll.120-121). Prospero underscores that what is

taking place in the play is under his control and is, in fact, his


Thus, when Miranda worries about the fate of those exposed to the

shipwreck at the start of the play, her father reassures her that despite the

appearances of disaster, none of the boat’s passengers or crew have been

harmed in the least. Like the playwright/director/producer that

Shakespeare was, Prospero remains in the background. Rather than confront the “three

sinners” directly, he assigns the task of telling Alonso, Antonio, and

Sebastian why they have been brought to the island and of their need to

repent to Ariel, the magician remaining hidden from their view.

We gain the sense that Prospero performs multiple functions in the theater

of his own creation. Among these roles is that of critic. Prospero

repeatedly assesses the performance of his actors. Thusё in Act III, scene

iii, he says to Ariel, “Bravely the figure of this harpy hast

thou/Perform’d, my Ariel” (III, iii., ll.81-82), He also places Ferdinand

in the role of a traitor/lackey and judges the young man’s performance of

that part as a means of determining his worthiness to wed Miranda. To his

credit, Prospero also critiques his own direction, apologizing to Ferdinand for

inflicting punishments upon him that may have seemed too austere (IV, i.,

ll.1-2). Like Shakespeare, then, Prospero’s relation to the theater is

multi-dimensional; he is an actor in the play, he is the creator of its

most spectacular scenes and its over-arching dramatic lines, he is the director

of others, and, lastly, he acts as critic of the performances turned in by

his actors and his own part in the play.

Shakespeare’s plays were performed on an outdoor stage without lighting.

Starting in the early afternoon, they had to be completed before sundown

and many of theme require temporal precision in the entrances and exits of

cast members and the use of special effects, e.g., the moaning of the ghost in

Hamlet. That being so, both the amount of time elapsed and the occurrence

of narrative events was crucial to the success of the performance. In his

capacity as stage manager, Prospero is continuously concerned with time.

At the very start of the play, Prospero says to Miranda that “The hour is now

come/The very minute bids thee ope ear” (I, ii., ll.37-38) to the story of

how they were shipwrecked together on the island a dozen years or more

beforehand. The reason that it is time for Miranda to learn of her

background (and it is remarkable that she has not asked about it sooner)

lies in dramatic circumstance: it is time for Miranda to be told who she

is because the miscreants who wronged her and her father are now in lace to

repent of their misdeeds. Prospero repeatedly alludes to the need to keep

his plans on schedule, uses the word “now” more than forty times a salient

instances coming at the start of Act V, when he proclaims to Ariel and his

audience, “Now does my project gather to a head,” (V, i., l.1).

Like an Elizabethan stage manager, Prospero controls the pace and flow of events,

making sure that the proceedings occur within the allotted time period, in

proper order, and at the exact moment in the story’s progression.

Nevertheless, the identification between Prospero and Shakespeare is not

exact. For one thing, Prospero on the Island and in Milan, is an

aristocrat, a noble bound by solemn obligation to rule over his subjects. Shakespeare,

on the other hand, while honored by royalty never rose above the upper

ranks of the Elizabethan middle-class. By the same token, Prospero has no

commercial life, no concern with money or material gain. The same cannot

be said of his creator, Shakespeare having extensive financial interests in

real estate, commodity trading, and, above all, the theater itself.

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