The Tempest - Prospero as Ruler

Written by Ng E-Ching, 2A01B, 29 April, 1996.


"In the character of Prospero in The Tempest Shakespeare presents the ideal ruler: one who reconciles power over the outer world with power over the self." How far do you agree?

Prospero's magical powers allow him to single-handedly take control of a situation of slowly developing chaos, caused by his eviction from Milan, and turn the plot of The Tempest towards comedy by sheer force [not entirely accurate]. That he has powers over his surroundings, far tick!greater than those of an ordinary mortal, is incontestable, as is the fact that he uses tick!them for good in the course of the play. However, it remains to be asked whether Prospero combines his magic with tick!power over the self, and whether Shakespeare actually presents him as an ideal ruler.tick!

Although we hear the story of Prospero's eviction from Milan from him, the manner in which he tells his history inspires distrust tick!-- Prospero is tick!pompous, self-pitying and apparently tick!unforgiving. The nature of Prospero's rule as revealed by Act I is not tick!pleasant. When duke of Milan, he trusted his brother Antonio too tick!much, and consequently nearly tick!lost his life, as well as his dukedom. On the island, he befriended Caliban, brought him into his house and treated him as a member of the family -- and repeated tick!the pattern of trust, which was again tick!betrayed, when Caliban attempted to rape Miranda. Although Prospero learns from this second betrayal, he tick!goes to the other extreme. Prospero's apparently tyrannical tick!stance is revealed in his exile and verbal abuse of Caliban, as well as his tirade and threat to imprison Ariel again "till / Thou hast howl'd away twelve winters".

Aside from the sin of tyranny, Prospero also seems unforgiving towards Caliban and Antonio. When we see Caliban willingly serving Stephano and Trinculo, we begin to realise that Caliban is not evil of himself, and could in fact be a most affectionate tick!servant. Seeing Caliban fear cramps and speak of Prospero as a "tyrant", Shakespeare implies that the fault of alienating Caliban lies with Prospero's failure tick!to understand Caliban's limitations and accept them, while teaching tick!him to be what he can achieve. Furthermore, Prospero's treatment of the court party seems to show that he is interested only in frightening them, and at this point we do tick!not realise that he wants to educate them. When we see Alonso dashing offstage apparently to kill himself, we can only assume that Prospero wants to take his revenge on the relatively tick!blameless Alonso by allowing him to commit suicide. As yet, we have heard no other speech from Prospero about his intentions for the court party except for the long history he told to tick!Miranda, when he called Alonso "an enemy / To me inveterate" and spoke bitterly at great length about Antonio.

Prospero is also consistently self-indulgent and vain. At the beginning of the play, he tick!calls himself "poor man" in his story to Miranda, and answers her question in extremely long-winded fashion, suiting his own wishes rather than hers. Although he says that his only care has been to serve Miranda, the first thing we see after that is Miranda serving him by helping him take his cloak off -- implying tick!hypocrisy. When Stephano's party is getting ready to kill Prospero and the court party is apparently going to commit mass suicide, aided by Antonio, tick!Prospero indulges his vain desire to show off his art to his children, and make the most of it before he gives it up. Even at the end, we are slightly uneasy at Prospero's desire to tell everyone his life story -- tick!a wish that seems somewhat selfish.

However, this has been but one tick!side of the coin. Although Prospero appears tyrannical at the beginning of the play, our impressions of him change drastically by the end. His last lines to Ariel are that once he has blown them safely home, he is free; and at a point when Ariel again reminds him of his promise, he reacts calmly, unlike his earlier outburst. We also discover that while Prospero has punished Caliban ever since his offence, he has also constantly searched for an opportunity tick!to educate him further; and it begins to seem likely that Prospero tick!only waited until the arrival of the court party because he could not have provided, by himself, the opportunity for Caliban to educate himself. This seems to invalidate, to some extent, tick!Caliban's accusation that Prospero is a "tyrant" -- he may be an absolute monarch, but he does care for and educate his subjects. Also, in the end, Prospero accepts Caliban -- "this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine" tick! -- and forgives tick!Antonio, even to the point of not revealing his murder plot to Alonso, although we are confident, from his behaviour during the play, that Prospero himself will not watch over Antonio. [?]

For Prospero's self-indulgence and vanity there seems little excuse. It is the only factor that may interfere with his rule in Milan. However, this is a minor fault when held in check by his other virtues. He genuinely cares for his subjects -- witness the fact that he does not give up on the task of educating Caliban, tick!and carries that out at the same time as he undertakes the delicate task of educating the court party. The cruelty he shows to Ferdinand and his failure to heed Miranda's plea for mercy is done for a good reason tick!-- he is willingly giving her away to seek her new life. His use of his magic, while done at times to indulge himself, is always for some greater purpose tick!that involves others. Even the masque's main objective is to warn tick!Ferdinand and Miranda, not tick!to amuse himself. In Prospero, by concealing part of the truth at first, Shakespeare shows us the development of Prospero's character while on the island, from excessively trustful, to tyrannical, to a man who is willing to forgive. By the end of the play, tick!Prospero indeed combines power over himself with power over the outer world. Although this does put him in an ideal position to lead, Prospero is brought to a point where he develops tick!control over himself, rather than being presented as such a character immediately.

However, it must be noted that at the end of the play, Prospero gives up his magic. Shakespeare clearly wants us to see this as a good tick!and necessary action. Magic has set Prospero above the human hierarchy, has made him into a demi-god. This is no more a natural or appropriate position for Prospero than a place as a member of Prospero's family was for Caliban. Although this power has given Prospero great power to lead the others on the island, it has been in the nature of a god that he has led. In order for Prospero to become an ideal tick!human leader, he must give up "this rough magic", and consent to allow his power to flow only from the loyalty of his people.

Shakespeare does not present us the perfect ruler immediately. Instead, he develops Prospero from a basically good, but flawed man, to one who, although retaining some vanity and therefore is not perfect, will certainly act in a manner befitting an ideal leader.


Extremely well argued. Excellent balance. Well done. 45/50

Related Essays

* Art vs. Nature (E-Ching's),   * Art vs. Nature (Rouh Phin's),
* Prospero as Ruler,   * Prospero vs. Caliban,
* The Tempest as Masque,   * Apparitions and Stage Spectacle,
* Ideas vs. Dramatic Principle,   * Island of Echoes & Suggestions,
* Comic Resolution,   * Prospero Context


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