Essay on Shakespeare's The Tempest - Prospero and Shakespeare
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The Tempest, Prospero and Shakespeare
There can be no doubt that The Tempest contains numerous references to the theater, and while many of Shakespeare's plays make reference to the dramatic arts and their analogy to real life (e.g., "all the world's a stage"), it is in this, his last play, that the Bard most explicitly acknowledges that the audience is viewing a show. Thus, in the play's final scene (Act I, scene i., ll.148ff), Prospero tells his prospective son-in-law Ferdinand that the revels at hand are almost at an end, that the actors are about to retire, and that the "insubstantial pageant" of which he has been a part has reached its conclusion. It is, in fact, tempting to equate the character of Prospero with that of his creator, the playwright Shakespeare. When Prospero sheds his magician's robes in favor of his civilian attire as the Duke of Milan, with the benefit of hindsight that this is Shakespeare's last work and his crowning achievement, we are disposed to associate the learned sorcerer with the Bard of Avon. How far we are to take this identification, however, is moot.
Prospero of The Tempest, like Shakespeare in his late Romance period, is a mature man with a daughter (Shakespeare, in fact, had two daughters, his only son dying in childhood) at the height of his intellectual and creative powers. Prospero is a polymath, a scholar with a magic book from an entire library that so absorbed him that it was, "dukedom large enough" (I, ii. l.110). Prospero displays a tinge of regret for having neglected his worldly office as Duke of Milan in favor of the life of the mind. Similarly, as virtually all of Shakespeare's biographers have observed, the Elizabethan playwright's knowledge was exceedingly broad, leading many to speculate that he pursued a number of vocations before settling into a life in the theater, and we know from textual correspondences that Shakespeare was broadly read and that he continued to absorb knowledge from diverse publications until his death. We can also speculate that Shakespeare regretted remaining away from his home in Stratford, at least insofar as his career in London kept him away from his children. Lastly, following The Tempest, Shakespeare, like Prospero, retired to civilian life, there being a period of five or six years between his composition of that play and his untimely death at the age of fifty-two.
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Prospero Tempest Shakespeare Milan Magician Mature Real Life Displays Broad Playwright
Beyond these surface biographical parallels, Prospero's role is less that of a character than that of the imaginative or creative force behind the play itself. After the pageant of the goddesses who bless the union of Miranda and Ferdinand, Prospero explains that the effigies which they have seen are "Spirits, which by mine art/I have from their confines call'd to enact/My present fancies" (IV, i., ll.120-121). Prospero underscores that what is taking place in the play is under his control and is, in fact, his creation. Thus, when Miranda worries about the fate of those exposed to the shipwreck at the start of the play, her father reassures her that despite the appearances of disaster, none of the boat's passengers or crew have been harmed in the least. Like the playwright/director/producer that Shakespeare was, Prospero remains in the background. Rather than confront the "three sinners" directly, he assigns the task of telling Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian why they have been brought to the island and of their need to repent to Ariel, the magician remaining hidden from their view.
We gain the sense that Prospero performs multiple functions in the theater of his own creation. Among these roles is that of critic. Prospero repeatedly assesses the performance of his actors. Thus¸ in Act III, scene iii, he says to Ariel, "Bravely the figure of this harpy hast thou/Perform'd, my Ariel" (III, iii., ll.81-82), He also places Ferdinand in the role of a traitor/lackey and judges the young man's performance of that part as a means of determining his worthiness to wed Miranda. To his credit, Prospero also critiques his own direction, apologizing to Ferdinand for inflicting punishments upon him that may have seemed too austere (IV, i., ll.1-2). Like Shakespeare, then, Prospero's relation to the theater is multi-dimensional; he is an actor in the play, he is the creator of its most spectacular scenes and its over-arching dramatic lines, he is the director of others, and, lastly, he acts as critic of the performances turned in by his actors and his own part in the play.
Shakespeare's plays were performed on an outdoor stage without lighting. Starting in the early afternoon, they had to be completed before sundown and many of theme require temporal precision in the entrances and exits of cast members and the use of special effects, e.g., the moaning of the ghost in Hamlet. That being so, both the amount of time elapsed and the occurrence of narrative events was crucial to the success of the performance. In his capacity as stage manager, Prospero is continuously concerned with time. At the very start of the play, Prospero says to Miranda that "The hour is now come/The very minute bids thee ope ear" (I, ii., ll.37-38) to the story of how they were shipwrecked together on the island a dozen years or more beforehand. The reason that it is time for Miranda to learn of her background (and it is remarkable that she has not asked about it sooner) lies in dramatic circumstance: it is time for Miranda to be told who she is because the miscreants who wronged her and her father are now in lace to repent of their misdeeds. Prospero repeatedly alludes to the need to keep his plans on schedule, uses the word "now" more than forty times a salient instances coming at the start of Act V, when he proclaims to Ariel and his audience, "Now does my project gather to a head," (V, i., l.1). Like an Elizabethan stage manager, Prospero controls the pace and flow of events, making sure that the proceedings occur within the allotted time period, in proper order, and at the exact moment in the story's progression. Nevertheless, the identification between Prospero and Shakespeare is not exact. For one thing, Prospero on the Island and in Milan, is an aristocrat, a noble bound by solemn obligation to rule over his subjects. Shakespeare, on the other hand, while honored by royalty never rose above the upper ranks of the Elizabethan middle-class. By the same token, Prospero has no commercial life, no concern with money or material gain. The same cannot be said of his creator, Shakespeare having extensive financial interests in real estate, commodity trading, and, above all, the theater itself.
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?