Deconstructing Prosperity: Undermining Prospero’s Authority in The Tempest
A variant of prosperity, Prospero undoubtedly serves as the major manipulative authority throughout Shakespeare’s drama, The Tempest. Through a postcolonial reading of the text, one can discern that The Tempest is riddled with native characters, forced servitude, the assimilation of language, and ultimately, Prospero’s own construction of the characters’ fates. Conjuring the tempest itself in order to marry off his daughter, Miranda, and reclaim his lost power, Prospero aims to construct the outcomes of the play by repeatedly manipulating those around him. Often referring to his “art,” Shakespeare’s ambiguity leaves the reader to question, what, or whom, is actually Prospero’s “art.” Throughout the course of The Tempest, Shakespeare consistently calls into question both the source and the legitimacy of Prospero’s powers. Through his manipulations of the denotations in Prospero’s dialogue, Shakespeare subtly reveals Prospero’s art to be nothing more than a carefully constructed illusion of power, simultaneously undermining his authority within the text and characterizing him as the quintessential colonial hegemon desperate for power.
The ambiguous nature of Prospero’s art is repeatedly referenced throughout the play by both the supporting characters and Prospero himself, engraining its relevance as the major speculative subject of the work. In a rather manipulative moment in the text where Prospero is seducing Ferdinand to love the island and his daughter, he begins his proclamation: “Spirits, which by mine art” (IV.i.120). Responding to Ferdinand’s awe, and question of whether spirits are indeed present, Prospero chooses to grandiosely highlight his own powers over them. By employing the term “art”—something considered a skill often the product of knowledge or practice—Shakespeare demonstrates to both Ferdinand and the reader that the spirits and the supernatural stem from Prospero’s efforts. By repeatedly highlighting diction that denotes individual skill and valor, Shakespeare crafts an image of Prospero’s own narcissism. Building a man of such a valiant and practiced character, he additionally hints at the language of manipulation Prospero utilizes when addressing other characters. Prospero not only proclaims the existence of art but also takes note to vocalize it as “mine art.” The presence of this possessive diction reflects the property and the ownership Prospero asserts over the art, further engraining it as something unique to his character and ability. By so vividly asserting his agency and skill over the supernatural, Prospero positions himself as authoritative and all knowing to those that surround him. This rather arrogant insistence of his own power builds to his status as the island’s hegemon, for he implores to other characters that he undoubtedly controls a magic they cannot even begin to fathom.
While “art” immediately stands to illustrate Prospero’s power, Shakespeare’s surrounding diction conversely works to undermine his assertion of authority. The entities of the spirits themselves diminish Prospero’s claims of dominance. Beginning Prospero’s response to Ferdinand with the subject “Spirits,” Shakespeare elicits a quizzical ambiguity that suggests dual meanings of the word. The two arguably most influential interpretations of the term “spirits” distinctly contrast: one suggests that the term denotes a temporary separation of the immaterial and material parts of man’s being while the other explicates it as an entity distinct from anything physical or material. Thus, this calls to question whether the spirits are immaterial extensions of Prospero himself or fully autonomous, unaffiliated beings. By selecting such highly ambiguous diction as the subject of the dialogue, Prospero’s power and control over his art corrodes at the presence of the spirits; Shakespeare plants the seed that the art is quite possibly an entity entirely separate from Prospero.
As the dialogue continues, Prospero forcefully, and rather manipulatively, lays claim to his control over the spirits. However, the image of control over the spirits that unfolds in the following two lines separates Prospero from the source of power, instead revealing his aim to take and control the “art.” Shakespeare continues Prospero’s response writing, “I have from their confines called to enact/My present fancies” (IV.i.121-122). The assertive possession that “have” denotes, for Prospero’s commands to the spirits, implies his strength and control over the situation. However, the ambiguity over the source of the power extends further upon acknowledging a colloquial use of “have:” an act of deception or trickery. This interpretation of Shakespeare’s diction elicits direct reference to Prospero’s schemes. The subtle use of this lesser known colloquial undermines Prospero’s asserted control over the “art,” instead conveying his manipulative hoax in the pursuit of power. Additionally, the use of “called” reflects a scene of Prospero forcibly and authoritatively commanding the spirits. This image of active control explicates Prospero’s role as the play’s dominator. By demanding action from the spirits, he proclaims his authority over the others on the island and positions himself as leeching off of what is, arguably, their “art.”
Shakespeare’s depiction of the “confines” in which the spirits are kept furthers Prospero’s characterization as a colonial sovereign within the play. Denoting “confines” as an enclosure or limitation of boundaries—or even borders—Shakespeare’s precise selection of this diction isolates the spirits from the physical island. Distancing them, and their powers, from the material world, Shakespeare reveals the spirits to be remote essences through the image of their confines. Not only does this corrode Prospero’s connection to the “art” by physically detaching it from earth, it additionally characterizes him as a manipulative authority yearning for control. Already constrained within the setting of island, the characters throughout Shakespeare’s play are confined by the natural borders of the landscape. Prospero’s assertion of the spirit’s additional “confines,” beyond the mere geography of the island, illustrates his desire to develop the borders for those around him, firmly distinguishing him as the text’s colonial authority. This assertion of domination and restriction over the spirits’ habitat solidifies Prospero as an aggressor and further distances him—via physical boundaries—from an art he claims as his own.
Near the closing of Prospero’s brief dialogue with Ferdinand, Shakespeare quite clearly dismantles the notion of Prospero as the complete possessor of power. Proclaiming that the Spirits are present to “enact/[his] present fancies” (IV.i.121-122), Prospero’s slip of the verb “enact” highlights the spirits as the actors of the art. Denoted as a performance, the verbiage gives acclaim to the spirits rather than Prospero himself. This usage of “enact” demonstrates Prospero’s role as the manipulator, rather than the possessor of the art. Furthermore, to close his dialogue with the notion of his “fancies” indicates the acts of magic to be merely fantasies of Prospero’s creation. Considering the usage of “fancies” as an illusion of the senses, or better yet, a delusive imagination or hallucination, Shakespeare’s diction conjures the notion that Prospero is deluding those around him to subscribing to his authority—an authority he pulls from his “art.” However, this dually serves to illustrate Prospero’s own delusion or hallucination of the extent of his own power. Depicting his ends as merely “fancies,” Shakespeare undermines the legitimacy of Prospero’s magic; merely characterizing him has desperate for control.
Shakespeare’s manipulation of the diction throughout Prospero’s dialogue gradually erodes his claims to the power of art and instead characterizes him as the play’s hegemon. His manipulation of intentionally ambiguous words aims to mask his absence of true power. Instead, Shakespeare’s implication of alternative or lesser known denotations diminishes Prospero’s control over the “art”—conveying the magic as controlled by the spirits—ultimately revealing his hoax to establish dominance over the cast of characters. Throughout The Tempest it gradually becomes clear that the only “art” Prospero truly possesses is that of authoritative manipulation.
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