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Analysis of Prospero's Behavior in The Tempest

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Analysis of Prospero's Behavior in The Tempest essay

At first glance, the ending of Shakespeare’s The Tempest appears to be stable, to have reconciled Prospero with his estranged brother and to demonstrate virtuous behavior on the part of Prospero. Indeed, one critic noted that Prospero’s “capacity for compassion and forgiveness” amounts to his “primary worth” (Hunt 69). Brian Sutton, however, acknowledges that “enough loose ends remain for a number of prominent critics to suggest that beneath this cheery surface” the ending remains far from stable (224). And David Brailow goes so far as to say that Prospero finds a way of “reconciling himself to evil” (286). Sutton’s and even Brailow’s analyses seem to be more valid than Hunt’s because Hunt fails to recognize that the compassion and forgiveness of Prospero is demonstrated conditionally. It is true that Prospero rescued Ariel, but Ariel now lives in servitude to him. It is also true that Prospero educated Caliban in matters of language and religion, but as a result, Caliban is enslaved to him. The arranging of his daughter Miranda’s marriage to Ferdinand also seems like a compassionate act, but this marriage will set him up to be father to the future Queen of Naples. Finally, what might be considered his most redeeming act, forgiving his brother who has assumed Prospero’s place as Duke of Milan, comes with a price – that Prospero be reinstated as duke of Milan. Prospero’s actions are not virtuous because they are not selfless acts performed with no ulterior motive in mind; rather, they are selfish acts that are designed to further Prospero’s end goal: reinstatement as the Duke of Milan. If doing something in return for something else is the only criteria for virtue, evil is easily justified as we will see in the case of Prospero.

In The Tempest, Prospero has been wrongfully displaced and is not happy with his situation which causes him to act out in ways that he hopes will change his situation (1.2.53-151). Sutton explains that Prospero’s brother Antonio conspires with Alonso who is the King of Naples “to overthrow Prospero and to usurp the dukedom for himself” (225). This leaves Prospero in a destitute position, cast out to an island with his daughter Miranda. When he tells his daughter of how his brother has betrayed him and how they ended up on the island, he tells her “thou [Miranda] wast that did preserve me” thus implying that Miranda was his sole reason for sanity and without her, he really would have been utterly unhappy (1.2.155). Even with Miranda, though, Prospero was preserved but not happy. His displacement made him unhappy which causes him to act in ways that will help him to become happy again – his actions are all aimed at becoming the Duke of Milan once more.

When Prospero arranges a marriage between his daughter, Miranda, and Ferdinand, he has an ulterior motive in mind. This marriage will benefit Prospero’s efforts to become the Duke of Milan again. Ariel, responding to commands from Prospero, takes special care to ensure that Ferdinand arrives at the island, perfectly setting him up to meet Miranda (1.2.221). Then, when Miranda first sees Ferdinand, she thinks he is a spirit but Prospero explains to her that he is human, like they are, and that he might be called “a goodly person” (1.2.417). Prospero further manipulates the situation by making Ferdinand to do physical labor for Miranda because he assumes that if the winning is too light then the prize will be too light as well (Rockett 80). The most telling part of this arranged marriage, however, is the fact that Ferdinand is the son of the current King of Naples. So if Miranda marries Ferdinand, she will one day be the Queen, making Prospero father to the future Queen of Naples. This very much taints Prospero’s deed. He has a self-centered reason for doing what he does. In this instance, there is no apparent bad consequence of his action, but it cultivates a selfishness in him that causes him to act only when there is something in it for him. In other words, he is constantly looking to create his own terms of repayment.

Prospero perfectly sets himself up to forgive his betrayers on his own terms when he releases his brother and the other betrayers. In an eloquent speech to Ariel, he says:

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling

Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,

One of their kind, that relish all as sharply

Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,

Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury

Do I take part. The rarer action is

In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,

The sole drift of my purpose doth extend

Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel.


Maurice Hunt sees this speech as a result of the prompting of Ariel who is helping Prospero to see that the people who betrayed him are his fellow men and that he should feel some human empathy for them (61). He goes on to say that it is this sense of compassion and forgiveness that makes Prospero virtuous (69). Hunt, however, seems not to take into account that when Prospero ultimately does release and forgive his brother and the other betrayers, he forgives them on one condition: that he be reinstated as Duke of Milan. What is the criteria for virtue here? Prospero does release his brother and betrayers, but there are terms. If Prospero is in charge of determining what the terms are, who is to limit him? In this case, no one limits him. If there are no limitations, any action can be excused.

Prospero makes use of his perfect position to create the terms on which he will forgive his betrayers. He determines that he will forgive them on a few conditions. When Prospero is reconciling with his brother Alonso, he says that he does forgive Alonso’s “rankest fault” but he also commands that Alonso “must restore” his dukedom (5.1.131-34). Sutton agrees that “he forgives only on the condition that he be restored to his former, and rightful, position as Duke of Milan” (227). In other words, Prospero’s forgiveness is conditional – it will be granted only if he is reinstated as duke of Milan. His forgiveness is selfish – it has terms that will benefit him entirely. Creating these terms that benefit him only and accepting as virtuous transactions where something is given in return for something else ultimately lead to Prospero’s moral demise.

Under the guise of compassion, Prospero rescues the spirit Ariel only to make him a servant. It is true that he saved Ariel from an evil witch named Sycorax who had imprisoned Ariel (1.2.260-83). This act might be virtuous if it were unconditional, but it is not. Ariel now lives in servitude to Prospero, addressing him as “great master” and responding to Prospero’s question of whether or not Ariel had “performed to point the tempest” that Prospero had commanded with the answer “to every article” (1.2.189-196). There are many examples of Ariel’s service to Prospero including Prospero’s manipulative plan to cause his daughter, Miranda, to fall in love with Ferdinand who is the son of the King of Naples:

PROSPERO What, Ariel! My industrious servant Ariel!

Enter Ariel

ARIEL What would my potent master? Here I am.

PROSPERO Thou and thy meaner fellows your last service did worthily perform, and I must use you in such another trick. Go, bring the rabble o’er whom I give thee pow’r here to this place. Incite them to quick motion, for I must bestow upon the eyes of this young couple some vanity of mine art: it is my promise, and they expect it from me.

ARIEL Presently?

PROSPERO Ay, with a wink.

ARIEL Before you can say “come” and “go”, and breathe twice, and cry “so, so”, each one, tripping on his toe, will be here with mop and mow.


This passage clearly illustrates Prospero as a master and Ariel as servant. Prospero continually reminds Ariel of the fact that he saved Ariel asking “dost thou forget from what a torment I did free thee” when Ariel demands liberty from Prospero (1.2.250). The fact that Prospero rescued Ariel is reason enough, in his mind, for Ariel to serve him willingly. His seemingly compassionate act of rescuing is conditional – Ariel now lives in servitude to him. The way in which Ariel serves Prospero is all part of a master plan to restore him to his place as Duke of Milan – there is something in it for Prospero. Prospero does not give freely. When he frees Ariel only to have Ariel serve him, he does nothing other than conduct a business transaction. The more we view virtue as a deal between two parties, the more we can justify any act – as long as both sides uphold their end of the bargain.

Prospero’s ultimate downfall is his enslavement of Caliban. It is difficult to determine that a character who can justify slavery simply because he has educated his slave is a virtuous character. Caliban admits that Prospero taught him “how to name the bigger light and how the less” and that Prospero “taught [him] language” (1.2.332-362). But Prospero describes him to Miranda as “my slave” who “does make our fire, fetch in our wood, and serves in offices that profit us” (1.2.308-311). Prospero himself acknowledges that he uses Caliban for his own purposes, for whatever profits Prospero in his return to the dukedom. William Rockett describes Caliban’s worth as “purely utilitarian” because he has no “spiritual content” or intrinsic worth, he is merely used for Prospero’s purposes (83). Caliban loses all autonomy and serves only as a mean to Prospero’s ends. Caliban’s education could be seen as virtuous if Prospero did not use it as justification for slavery. But because Prospero operates on a quid pro quo basis, he can legitimize any act as long as both sides of the ‘agreement’ are upheld. In this case, he educates Caliban and in return, Caliban is enslaved to him. This frame of mind allows Prospero to justify slavery, one of the greatest injustices in this world.

Prospero is a very active character. He causes a storm and a shipwreck; he rescues a spirit; he educates a slave; he arranges a marriage; he releases from his magic spell his brother and the other men who betrayed him. Almost all of these acts could be considered forgiving or compassionate, in some way or another. The problem is that every single one of these acts has the additional effect of bringing Prospero closer to the dukedom, step by step. Each of his actions is done not for the sake of the action itself but for Prospero’s own selfish motives. The problem with defining virtue as a business transaction is that this allows for no end to what can be justified. Prospero, with this frame of mind, can justify slavery. If virtue is something for something, anything goes. ‘Something’ can be filled in with any deed, moral or not, just or not. Prospero’s actions are business transactions. None of them are free, none of them are unconditional; they all have some kind of payment. Actions that have some set of terms are dangerous because the terms are not limited. One of Prospero’s terms was slavery. This is why acts conducted on a quid pro quo basis are not virtuous – they allow for anything, even slavery.

Works Cited

Brailow, David. “Prospero’s ‘Old Brain’: The Old Man as Metaphor in The Tempest.” Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 285-303. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.

Hunt, Maurice. “Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Human Worth.” Ben Jonson Journal: Literary Contexts in the Age of Elizabeth, James and Charles 20.1 (2013): 58-71. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

Rockett, William. “Labor and Virtue in The Tempest.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24.1 (1973): 77-84. JSTOR. Web. 4 Mar. 2016.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Stephen Orgel. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2008. Print.

Sutton, Brian. “‘Virtue Rather Than Vengeance’: Genesis and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.” Explicator 66.4 (2008): 224-229. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 4 Mar. 2016.

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