The use of power as seen in William Shakespeare's The Tempest and it's application to societies of the 17th and 20th Century.
The Tempest, written in 1611, is Shakespeare's last romantic comedy,. The most important theme in his play is the possession of control and command over others, more commonly known as power. Prospero, Ariel, Caliban and the courtiers from Milan, all demonstrate different levels of control. The characters, their relationships and their use of power can be compared to the English government and society of the 17th Century.
Prospero, the Duke of Milan, was overthrown in a power struggle with his brother Antonio and then set adrift upon a raft bound to sink. Prospero was equipped with his books of the supernatural and accompanied only by his daughter, Miranda. Prospero might attribute his powers to a loyal friend Gonzalo:
"Gonzalo, Out of his charity.....
Knowing I lov'd my books, he furnish'd me
From mine own Library with Volumes that
I prize over my Dukedom."
They came upon an island and that is where the play begins. This play actually occurs and the end of the chain of events. Ariel, meaning Godly spirit, is a man who was entombed within a pine tree by the evil witch Sycorax when disobeyed her vicious commands. With his knowledge of power, Prospero decides to free Ariel from his twenty-four year imprisonment. This is done for two reasons. Prospero either felt that it was his rightful duty to free this spirit because he had been tormented long enough and he might have felt pity for him, or he saw it as an opportunity for eternal servitude. The exact motive and interests of Prospero are not known but Ariel is eventually indebted to her liberator. This action can be described as Prospero using his powers to set an entrapped spirit free or Prospero abusing his powers to satisfy his personal interests.
The main characters in this play once had or presently have individual power. Prospero, the main character in this play, has the most control. He has the unique ability of possessing supernatural power. Prospero usually uses magical powers to help his loved ones but occasionally abused his powers to serve himself. Prospero was once free when he lived in Milan but is now restricted, to a certain extent, to the confines of his desert island. This restriction was indirectly his choice. He studied all day and all night when he was the Duke of Milan. He didn't want to be a ruler but he was unaware of the damage that his studies could do.
"The Government I cast upon my brother,
And to my State grew Stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret Studies."
Prospero might have had more power when he was ruling Milan than he did when he was on the island. His freedom of choice is greater when he is on the island because he does not have to worry about a severe rebellion where as in Milan a rebellion would be devastating and possibly deadly. Prospero's powers are evident as he summons Ariel to create a storm that will crash the ship that his enemy courtiers are on. Here he is seen getting ready to gain revenge on his enemies. He plans to use his powers to his advantage in order to attain this revenge.
Ariel and Caliban are two totally separate characters and they each react differently to the rule of Prospero. Ariel did not have any power when he was under the evil witch, Sycorax. He has much more freedom now that he is working under Prospero but he will never obtain complete freedom. He is seen as more as being part of the action than as a servant to Prospero. Ariel is the one who crashes the ship, rescues the passengers, plays invisible music, prevents the murder of Alonso, puts on a play for Prospero, and eventually leads all the courtiers to Prospero's circle in Act V. She carries out the powers and commands of Prospero. She is not seen as a servant to Prospero because she willingly commits the deeds that are asked of her and it seems as if she is happy serving and living under her leader. Ariel greets her master with great respect and dignity:
"All hail, great Master, grave Sir, hail: I come
To answer thy best Pleasure, be't to Fly,
To swim, to Dive into the fire, to Ride
On the curl'd Clouds. To thy strong Bidding task
Ariel and all his Quality."
Caliban is a much more self-indulgent, materialistic and vengeful being. He is deformed and has no morals, as he was raised by the evil witch, Sycorax. He is the "slave" of Prospero. One hears his voice before one actually see him because seeing a beast so horrid looking would be to much of a shock. Caliban once trusted Miranda and Prospero and this was mutual. Caliban showed the newcomers around the island. In return, Caliban was taught to speak English. All respect was lost for Caliban when he attempted to rape Miranda. He is now a slave to Prospero. Caliban curses Prospero when he is first called upon:
"As wicked Dew are ere
My Mother brush'd with Raven's Feather from
Unwholesome Fen drop on you both: a Southwest
Blow on ye, and blister you all o'er."
Caliban is upset with the power that Prospero, and even Ariel, have over him. Caliban treats Prospero badly and therefore gets treated badly in return. The two characters respond in completely different manners toward the commands of Prospero. Each character is meant to contrast each other and how they respond to the power that they are under.
The structure and use of power in Shakespeare's The Tempest can be linked to his day by examining governments in Britain. While Shakespeare was writing The Tempest, The Stuarts were in power in England. They were the least successful of all the dynasties that ruled. The government was basically autocratic, but was called a monarchy. There was a king, James I or James the VI of Scotland, the nobles, and then there was the middle/lower class.
There was a strict hierarchy within 17th Century England. The king ruled the country by telling the nobles what he wanted. He was in complete control of his kingdom. The nobles and the upper class, were the people who carried out the orders of the king. Whether the nobles liked these decisions or not, they were still required to carry out these orders. Most nobles respected the king and did what they were told because they believed in what the king said or they wanted to maintain their status on the social ladder. There were, however, the nobles who disliked the king and did not believe what the king was doing was right. They either attempted a rebellion with a lower class or they dropped several rungs on the social ladder very quickly. Underneath the nobles, were the middle/lower class. They were the shopkeepers or the farmers. They were the standard person.
These social levels are remarkably similar to the social levels within The Tempest. Prospero runs everything that happens on the island so he can be considered the 'king' of the island. He is in complete control of what occurs on the island because of his supernatural powers. He also has 'people' under him. He has the "airy spirit" of Ariel to work for him and carry out his orders. He is associated with the honourable nobles. He carries out the orders of Prospero with pleasure. He shows no animosity towards the rule of Prospero over the island. The rebellious nobles are represented by the character of Caliban. He curses the powers of Prospero and wishes that he was not trapped within the confines of his cave. He attempts, with Trinculo and Stephano, a "coup d'etat" against Prospero. There were many attempts for rebellion in the 1600's but most, like the attempt of Caliban, were unsuccessful. The middle/lower class is represented by the courtiers from Milan. The orders that are set by Prospero and carried out by Ariel directly effect the courtiers, as would the decisions of the king. The courtiers here are seen as the pawns in the revengeful game of the all mighty Prospero. A king in the 17th century could mould a society into whatever he wanted as long as he had enough power to enforce it and this is exactly what Prospero does.
The Tempest displays a focus on authority. This play in which love and friendship show only a small portion of Shakespeare's interest, revolves around the clashes between individual power and Prospero's desire for vengeance. These power struggles are also reflected within the English governments of the 17th Century. One may also reflect that concepts of authority exhibited in contemporary society render this play relevant today.
In this article I'll be considering the links between Shakespeare and his character, Prospero. But before we begin, would you be able to help me in a small literary investigation? Before you read any further could you skip down to the comments section and say whether or not you identify/identified Prospero with Shakespeare when you read the play?
My guess is that most modern readers do see something of the ageing playwright in the wizard. How not to find metaphors in the way he moves characters around the island, conjures visions, makes pointed comments about "the great globe itself" and eventually throws aside his staff and foreswears his art? What greater last words could there be for the genius from Stratford than that famous speech about how "our revels now are ended", or his final lines in the play asking for the audience to give him their applause and so "set him free"? Following on from that, who wouldn't find it poignant that The Tempest is widely thought to be one of Shakespeare's final plays (and many say his very last)? That he probably lived no more than five years after its composition? And that he did indeed quit the stage just as Prospero quit his enchanted island?
Once you start seeing autobiography in these final speeches, it follows that Shakespeare might have written more of himself into Prospero. Bardolators have loved this idea from the late 19th century onwards. Writing in 1875, for instance, Edward Dowden said: "We identify Prospero in some measure with Shakespeare himself … because the temper of Prospero, the grave harmony of his character, his self-mastery, his calm validity of will … and with these, a certain abandonment, a remoteness from the common joys and sorrows of the world, are characteristic of Shakespeare as discovered to us in all his latest plays."
It's easy to be cynical about the idea that we know Prospero is Shakespeare because he shares characteristics with all the other characters we've also identified with the playwright. Yet it's also easy to see why this line of thought is so tempting. Shakespeare is a uniquely tantalising historical figure. He gives us a feeling of remarkable kinship and understanding. He stretches out to us, through the ages, and shows that he thought and felt much as we do; he saw his world as we see ours. What's more, he still speaks our minds. We can still identify with Hamlet, Othello and even Macbeth. And as a result, few historical figures feel closer than the man who created them. Except, of course, we know next to nothing about him.
It's often said that we know SIX definite things about Shakespeare: he was baptised in Stratford-Upon-Avon in April 1564, his father was an illiterate glover and alderman, he worked in London from 1592 onwards (and wrote quite a few plays) and performed with the Lord Chamberlain's Company (later King's Men), he was buried in 1616, he left his wife his second best bed in his will. Even some of those "facts" are open to dispute. Was his father indeed illiterate, or did he just put a cross for his signature on the records we have of him – as plenty of his contemporaries seem to have done – for speed and convenience? How soon after William was born was he baptised? And yes, some people even say he didn't write the plays... Once you get involved in such disputes, you quickly come to see how little we know about the real man. Prospero conveniently fills that vacuum. He gives us a sense of someone we desperately want to know: the man behind all those wonderful words. So I understand the temptation of seeing Shakespeare wielding that staff – even though there's no more hard evidence that he felt close to Prospero than there is that he identified with Caliban, or Ferdinand or Miranda.
But here's an interesting thing. In a fascinating University of Oxford podcast about the folly of linking Prospero and Shakespeare, the academic Emma Smith points out that for a few hundred years after it was published in the First Folio, most critics assumed that The Tempest was Shakespeare's earliest play. It appeared first in the table of contents and so was generally accepted as the first to be written. As a result, hardly anyone mentioned the parallels between the playwright and Prospero. They thought it was the work of a young man and didn't think Shakespeare was trying to say anything about himself through the old wizard.
You might say that it's only because we have better evidence that we make these connections. But these varying approaches to the play across the generations also show how partial the business of interpretation really is.
For what it's worth, I don't entirely follow this line. Pretty much the first thing I read after listening to Smith's lecture was Coleridge's famous essay on The Tempest. This was written before people began to theorise that it was a later play, but Coleridge also calls Prospero "the very Shakespeare himself, as it were, of The Tempest". He too made the link if only in passing.
That's not to detract from the broader point Smith makes: different generations interpret the play according to their own concerns and knowledge almost as much as anything in the text itself.
She also cites Frank Kermode's 1952 introduction to the Arden edition of The Tempest in which the illustrious critic writes: "It is as well to be clear that there is nothing in The Tempest fundamental to its structure of ideas which could not have existed had America remained undiscovered … " It's hard to imagine anyone writing that now, after other critics have spent so much of the last 50 years banging on about the play as a response to colonialism.
It's similarly difficult to imagine such questions even occurring to Coleridge. For him, "The Tempest is a specimen of the purely romantic drama, in which the interest is not historical, or dependent upon fidelity of portraiture, or the natural connexion of events – but is a birth of the imagination, and rests only on the coaptation and union of the elements granted to, or assumed by, the poet."
You don't need me to point out the happy coincidence that a leading romantic poet realised that the play reflected his own outlook.
The truth is that if we're looking for anyone in The Tempest, it shouldn't be Shakespeare, it should be ourselves. The wonder of the play is that it is flexible enough, and polished enough, to keep on reflecting back at us, through all the warpings of time and space. That it is (to quote Coleridge again) "therefore for all ages". We'll never find the original poet, but we will find our own concerns, interests and sensibilities. Which brings me to the second part of my investigation, a question: what do you think The Tempest is about?