The Tempest

Commentary by Maria Rioux

Familial Love, Romantic Love, Revenge, Freedom, Justice, Mercy

Is Prospero a good father?
Prospero loves his daughter and takes great care with her. He arranges for her to meet and fall in love with Ferdinand (and in this his motives might not be altruistic.. “Was Milan thrust from Milan, that his issue should become kings of Naples?”), and test this man to be assured of his constancy and devotion.

They are both in either’s powers: but this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light.

We must bear in mind that Prospero is getting older, he and his daughter are stuck on an island with Caliban, who is hardly trustworthy. I think we can safely assume that Prospero is motivated more by his daughter’s good than any revenge for himself.

I have done nothing but in care of thee. Of thee my dear one, thee, my daughter, who art ignorant of what thou art, nought knowing of whence I am…

Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit than other princess’ can, that have more time for vainer hours, and tutors not so careful.

We can see further evidence of Prospero’s generous nature in his dealing with Caliban.

I have used thee, filth as thou art, with human care; and lodged thee in mine own cell, til thou didst seek to violate the honour of my child.

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick; on whom my pains, humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost; and as with age his body grows uglier so his mind cankers.

Even after Caliban has plotted to dishonor his daughter and to take his life, Prospero pardons him and frees him.

Is Prospero a good man?

Prospero seems to be almost godlike. He commands the elements of nature, is seemingly omniscient, as well as invincible. He frees those in bondage and works to balance the scales of justice. Ferdinand even claims that “By immortal Providence she’s mine…” but we all know who orchestrated this romance. Gonzalo says something similar:

Look down, you gods, and on this couple drop a blessed crown! For it is you that hath chalked forth the way which brought us hither.

We might be tempted to impart base motives to his endeavors and see him simply as a powerful wizard seeking revenge. The text does not support such a conclusion.

At this hour lie at my mercy all mine enemies: shortly shall all my labors end, and thou shalt have the air at freedom: for a little, follow and do me service.

That if you now were to behold them, your affections would become tender.
Dost thou think so, spirit?
Mine would, sir, were I human.
And mine shall. Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling of their afflictions, and shall not myself, one of their, that relish all as sharply, passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art? Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick, Yet with my nobler reason against 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. (Act V,i, 18-30)

He’s as good as his word:

To work mine end upon their senses, that this airy charm is for…A solemn air and the best comforter to an unsettled fancy, cure thy brains, now useless, boil’d within thy skull!

I do forgive thee, unnatural though thou art.
I will requite you with as good a thing; at least bring forth a wonder, to content ye as much as me my dukedom.

There, sir, stop: Let us not burden our remembrances with a heaviness that’s gone.

The best news is, that we have safely found our king and company; the next our ship, which but three glasses since we gave out split, is tight and yare and bravely rigged, as when we first put out to sea.
Sir, all this service have I done since I went.

This last quote reminds us of earlier mention by Ariel that the shipwrecked men have come to no harm, not even a hair was lost, and their garments are fresher than before these misadventures befell them.

Not a hair perished; On their sustaining garments not a blemish. but fresher than before.

In exacting his revenge, Prospero is uncommonly gentle. His justice is tempered by mercy, which, if we remind ourselves of Portia’s words, is more god-like than man, and he that gives it is twice blest.

The direful spectacle of the wreck, which touched the very virtue of compassion in thee, I have with such provision in my art so safely ordered that there is no soul, No, not so much perdition as a hair betid to any creature in the vessel which thou heardst cry.

In Prospero’s epilogue we have, perhaps, the best insight into his motives and ideals, as well as an inkling of what Shakespeare might have said to his audience could he speak to them in his own person.

But release me from my bands with the help of your good hands:
gentle breath of your my sails must fill, or else my project fails, which was to please. Now I want spirits to enforce, art to enchant; and my ending is despair, unless I be relieved by prayer, which pierces so that it assaults mercy itself, and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.

Was this written to teach or to please?

If we take Shakespeare at his word…and we have no reason not to… his aim was to please. That does not mean that it cannot also teach. However, some methods are more properly ordered to teaching, while others teach almost by way of accident or inference. We recognize the good, the true, and the beautiful, or come to see such things through the artful efforts of one who knows them well.

Lastly, it is interesting to note that Prospero lost his dukedom due in part to too great attention and love for books and learning. He gave his brother too much control and power because he was preoccupied with his studies. Ironically, it is through books that Prospero is restored.

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