5 May 2013

Analysis of the Character of Prospero: Magic, Civilization and Power in the Tempest All Quotations by Act, Scene and Sorted by Theme

Typical Cambridge IGCSE questions on Prospero in The Tempest focus on power, control, magic and civilization. You might even be asked the horrible question: Why is Prospero’s character so interesting?

Caliban describes Prospero as a controlling, tyrannical man; other readings see him as a kindly god-like figure. Prospero is instrumental in the start of the play, literally creating the Tempest that brings characters onto the island location where the drama will be played out - where time stops and starts again - under his magical control. Prospero’s aim, like the author of the play, is to use the chaos of the storm to restore order and justice by the last act.

Prospero: Power and Civilization
The Tempest can be read as a critique of what we think of as civliization. The buffoonery of Stephano and Trinculo is a parody of government, as they plot to take over the island. More sinister is the murderous intent of Antonio and Sebastian, planning to kill the King of Naples, just as they unseated Prospero from his rightful place as ‘the Duke of Milan.’
Chaos is symbolised by the Tempest, which Prospero controls. Ironically, he will use this chaos, and his control over it to restore order.

At the start of the play, Prospero describes himself as ‘master of a full poor cell’ ‘and thy no greater father’: his two identities are lord of nothing (the sparse island) and Miranda’s father. Miranda has a higher judgement, referring to his ‘art’ and power to ‘put the wild waters in this roar’.

Significant Relationships in the order in which Prospero speaks to/about them:
Miranda: Prospero’s first words are about her ‘piteous heart’. He calls her ‘dear one’ and ‘ignorant’ - meant literally, that she lacks knowledge. He also says ‘I have done nothing but in care of thee’: she is his highest concern.
Antonio, his ‘false’ ‘ignoble’ brother who stole his dukedom with a ‘treacherous army’
King of Naples, (father to Ferdinand) ‘an enemy to me’
Ariel, his powerful, tempest-raising ‘fine apparition’ who calls him in return ‘my noble master’, whom Prospero has also promised ‘liberty’ (freedom)
Caliban, his ‘slave’ who he calls: ‘abhorred’, ‘hag-seed’, and refers to ‘thy vile race’
The first impression of Prospero is of a magician, doting father, then as a master. He is hard on Caliban and some critics argue Prospero is wickedly cruel. The softly sympathetic Miranda is also uncharacteristically hard on Caliban. Think why. How would you react if you caught someone raping, or trying to rape your daugher (or sister, or mother) and you were trapped on an island with them?

Themes linked to Prospero:
God-like power, Earthly Authority
Civilization, Justice, Order, and Chaos
Art and Magic

Prospero creates the storm, demonstrating God-like authority over the elements. Later he exhibits humility, referring to himself as master of this ‘poor cell’. His authority also extends to his own downfall. He says he enabled his brother’s treason by giving too much power to him and neglecting his own responsibilities as head of state. He spent too much time ‘rapt in my studies’, 1,2,77, and ‘my library was dukedom enough.’ 1,2,109 During his long exile, Prospero has gained self-knowledge. He refers to himself as ‘neglecting’ 1,2,86 the kingdom and says ‘alas, poor Milan’ 115. He speaks - in the present tense - of his ‘volumes that I prize above my Dukedom.’ To him, learning is still important.
1,2, 53 Prospero ‘Thy father was the Duke of Milan and / A prince of power’. He uses the past tense to show that he no longer inhabits the title.
The Power to Enslave:
Ariel 242 ‘Is there more toil?’ ‘pains’. Ariel says his release has been ‘promised ... not yer performed’ 245 ‘demand’ ‘liberty’
Prospero reminds Ariel of his former mistress, Sycorax: Prospero 289 ‘it was a torment to lay upon the damned’. He reminds him, I ‘let thee out’.

Is Prospero Cruel to Ariel, Caliban and Ferdinand?
Yes, and no.
  1. Ariel. Prospero keeps Ariel in captivity, talks gently to the spirit - though commandingly - but promises ‘liberty’. Prospero freed Ariel from the ‘torment to lay upon the damn’d’ which Sycorax put on the spirit.
  2. Caliban. Prospero seems cruel to Caliban, but see above. The attempted rape is key to understanding Prospero’s treatment of Caliban.
  3. Ferdinand. Prospero engineers a love story in which Ferdinand must be tested. Prospero’s harsh seeming comments are not to be taken at face value.

Prospero is too trusting. First, he trusted his brother, and this ‘trust’ ‘awaked an evil nature’ 1,2,93. His brother grew like ‘ivy’ that ‘sucked my verdure out’ (sucked the life out of him). Likewise, he trusted Caliban at first. ‘I have us’d thee with human care ... and lodg’d thee // In mine own cell’ ‘I pitied thee’, ‘took pains to make thee speak’. Now he describes him as as ‘abhorred slave // Which any print of goodness wilt not take’, as Caliban ‘didst seek to violate // The honour of my child’. Caliban is unrepentant ‘Oh ho! Oh ho! Would it had been done!’

Miranda questions whether Prospero’s expulsion from power and civilization should be called 1,2,60 ‘foul play’ or 1,2,61 ‘blessing’
Act 5, scene 1, Prospero says ‘this cell’s my court: here I have few attendants’
Miranda says: ‘How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world // That has such people in’t’.

Magical Control
Miranda says in 1,2,1: ‘If by your art ... you have put the wild waters in this roar, allay them’
Prospero tells Miranda to ‘pluck my magic garment from me’ and when it’s off, says ‘lie there my art’ (the power is in the cloak, not in himself: his power is in tools, technology and wisdom: he is not himself magical - as Ariel is and Sycorax was). Later, Caliban instructs Stephano and Trinculo: ‘Remember / First to possess his books,’, ‘for without them / He’s but a sot’ (Act 3, Scene 2, 86-88).
Miranda says Prospero’s tale is ‘like a dream’ 45
Ariel addresses him reverently 1,2, 189 ‘all hail, great master’.
In Act 5, scene 1, Prospero gives up his magic: ‘this rough magic// I here abjure’ ‘I’ll break my staff’ and ‘drown my book’

Theatre and Performance
Prospero describes the storm as ‘spectacle’ 25, now ‘safely ordered’ 28, and says ‘the hour’s now come’ 36. Prospero 194 describes what Ariel has ‘performed’, and Ariel describes it in theatrical terms as: ‘flame’ ‘lightning’ ‘thunderclaps’ 200-203. The storm is only so much performance, and Prospero is keen no one is physically hurt: Ariel 218 ‘not a hair perished’ ‘not a blemish’. Prospero comments on his own plan; ‘it works’
When Ferdinand comes, Prospero engineers the love story: ‘this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light’. He creates a trial by ordeal with a fairytale plot, seeming cruel to be kind. He says of Ferdinand To the most of men this is a Caliban // And they to him are angels.‘ Miranda picks up on the deception, saying to Ferdinand: ‘My father’s of a better nature, sir, // Than he appears by speech’ 

Prospero sends characters to sleep in Act 2, scene 1 with a ‘strange drowsiness’ and ‘they dropp’d as by a thunder stroke’, so that others can plot. He drives the plot with magic, exposing Sebastian and Antonio’s corrupt natures.

Prospero hardly appears in the main action of the play. He appears briefly to comment on the action in [Aside] and stage directions have him [Exit Above]. It is almost the voice of the dramatist commenting on the action he has created, as in Act 3, scene 3: ‘mine enemies are all knit up’ ... ‘they now are in my power’ ... ‘in these fits I leave them’. Prospero frequently appears, briefly, to comment on the action.
Don’t forget the marriage Masque of spirits in act 4, scene 1 with Iris, Ceres and Juno. Prospero says he has called them ‘to enact // My present fancies’ 
Then he says ‘the great globe itself ... shall dissolve’ ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on’ - it is as if Shakespeare is thinking of the transience of life, the fabric and fame of the globe as well as the earth and the brevity of human life.

Prospero and Miranda use the semantic field of heaven: Miranda says ‘O the heavens’, 1,2,116; Prospero describes Miranda as ‘cherubim’ as an angel and says they survived by ‘providence divine’. Oddly. Jove, Neptune, pagan gods and the witch Sycorax seem to coexist with God in this play. Monotheism sits uneasily with pantheism and magic.
Prospero also refers to ‘accident’ and ‘bountiful Fortune ... hath mine enemies /Brought to this shore’ ‘1,2,78. Prospero is powerful, but has only ‘prescience‘ (power to see the future). He can’t lure his enemies to the island, only wreck their ship when they approach, through luck: ‘auspicious star’ (1,2,182)

Madness and Reason
Prospero says there’s no man who’ll escape the storm  as it will 208 ‘infect his reason’  
Ariel 209 ‘a fever of the mad’ 214 ‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here’

Prospero says to his old enemy, the King of Naples, in Act 5, Scene 1: ‘Let us not burden our rememrances with // A heaviness that’s gone.’ He says to Trinculo and Stephano ‘As you look // To have my pardon, trim it handsomely’ 

Parallels with Other Characters:
Prospero and Sycorax
Prospero and his brother, Antonio
Prospero and Caliban, who claims to be the true ‘king of the island
Prospero and Stephano, Caliban’s new ‘master’
Prospero and Gonzalo’s utopic vision of ruling the island in Act 2, Scene 2 Gonzalo echoes Montaigne’s essay on the New World ‘Of Cannibals’ when he says that there would be no commerce or work or ‘sovereignty’ in his ideal society. Then  Sebastian replies, ‘yet he would be king on’t,’ and Antonio adds, ‘The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning” (Act 2, Scene i 156-157). Gonzalo’s vision seems to involve him ruling the island while seeming not to rule it.

Get more on The Tempest. Get more Cambridge IGCSE resources here.