Information, Justice, and Mercy: Shakespearean Ideals in the Tempest
Do the ends justify the means? People have been asking this question since the beginning of time, but often cannot find an answer. The Tempest is about deception and manipulation of the truth, but ends with a morally clear message. Prospero is the wizard-king of the island where the drama is set; throughout the play, he manipulates characters through language and deception. However, this is not to say that Prospero is malevolent force. Indeed, Shakespeare demonstrates that Prospero’s sense of justice is the correct one with several key scenes in the play. This creates somewhat of a paradox, being, if one has to lie to achieve their goals, but their goals are noble in nature, is that acceptable? This essay will argue that Prospero’s manipulation of truth and fact lead to an interpretation of justice that Shakespeare believed in, one of mercy.
One could argue that any manipulation of the truth leads to a false sense of justice. If justice is an inherently ‘right’ concept and lying is an inherently ‘wrong’ one, then there should never be a combination of the two. Shakespeare, however, demonstrates how this is a fallacy that cannot exist in the real world. By siding his narrative with Prospero, Shakespeare demonstrates that to achieve what is ‘right’ does not occur in black and white, but rather a much larger spectrum. The audience is almost immediately led to distrust Prospero’s motives early in the play. One of the most telling early scenes is when he is berating Caliban, right after both characters has been introduced. What the audience knows of Caliban is only what has been said so far on stage, and what he looks like. Therefore, when it is learnt that Caliban was the original inhabitant of the island, some of Prospero says is thrown into doubt. Especially so when Caliban claims “and then I loved thee, And showed thee all the qualities o’th’ isle… Cursed be that I did so” (1.2 336-339). Caliban’s assertion that he once loved Prospero creates doubt in the audience’s minds. Love is well known to be one of the strongest emotions and anytime it is brought into play, it implies an implicit level of trust. So, for Caliban to have trusted Prospero in the past points to a somewhat unreliable narration now. Even though Caliban attempted to rape Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, his words have already been said. While Caliban is clearly a despicable character, the implication is that at one point, he was almost a part of the family allows allows some doubt, even though Prospero is the more sympathetic character after their exchange due to Caliban’s harsh language and insolence. This is also accentuated by Prospero’s language. When speaking to Miranda he says things like “Awake, dear heart, awake. Thou hast slept well” (1.2 301-302). However, when speaking to Caliban, his tone totally changes, “Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself, upon thy wicked dam, come forth” (1.2 319-320). This juxtaposition of tone demonstrates that Prospero has multiple sides to him. At one point he can be loving and kind, the next, cruel. By showing he has a capacity for both, Prospero makes himself unreliable early in the story.
Still, Prospero is not the only unreliable character in the story. While Shakespeare eventually offers that Prospero’s sense of justice is the correct one, he has to demonstrate that the other characters are in the wrong. He does this through Antonio and Sebastien, two lords that were part of the shipwreck. The characters of Antonio and Sebastien are classic Shakespearian villains. They are no doubt evil and malicious, but they are also incompetent. This is evident in Antonio’s attempt to get Sebastien to kill his brother Alonso and take over his kingdom. While they argue whether to kill Alonso, and the advisor, Gonzalo, Prospero saves them through his spirit, Ariel. When the whole group awakes to see Antonio and Sebastien with their swords drawn, they obviously have some questions, to which Sebastien responds ““We heard a hollow burst of bellowing, like bulls, or rather lions- did’t not wake you?” (2.1 308-309). Sebastien’s attempt to create a lie presents two ideas. First, it shows how Antonio and Sebastien are incompetent characters, by making up a ridiculous lie. After being on the island for hours and having not recorded any signs of animals as large as bulls or lions, this seems unlikely. Not to mention they had just been to Africa, which is the home of lions, not some island in the Mediterranean. Second, it furthers the theme of control of information. Since Antonio is the de facto leader of the party, the others must defer to him. Him, and subsequently Sebastien, are able to control how the others perceive the island through their lies. This, along with their constant insults to Gonzalo allow the audience to see how information and lies can work both ways. While the audience can see what the two main characters so far (Prospero and Antonio) have said dubious things, their affects are largely different. Prospero appears to be in the right to be putting down Caliban after it is learned about the attempted rape. However, Antonio seeks nothing but power and uses his lies to help only himself. This dynamic allows the audience to come to the conclusion later that Prospero is the benign character that he appears to be and Antonio is the villain.
Act three represents a turning point in the novel, the love interests finally come together and Prospero is able to exact revenge on those who wronged him. Shakespeare continues with the theme of controlling information in all three of the scenes. In the first scene, Miranda and Ferdinand, who is the son of Alonso, speak for the second time and declare their love for each other. While they believe themselves to be alone, Prospero is there invisibly watching. This leads to a dilemma, because if Miranda and Ferdinand really do love each other, why does Prospero need to be there to confirm it? Although his intentions are completely gentle “So glad of this as they I cannot be, Who are surprised withal, but my rejoicing at nothing can be more” (3.1 93-95), Prospero is still there controlling the situation. He expected Miranda to go to Ferdinand and watched in order to make sure everything went along smoothly, which it does. This continues with how Shakespeare sides with Prospero’s part of the story. Even though Prospero does something that is morally questionable, the outcome is a good one, something that happens repeatedly throughout the play. This pattern of ambiguous morality leading to favorable results for Prospero continually reinforces to the audience that Prospero is the hero of the play. On the converse side, Caliban attempts to humanize himself with a speech about the wonders of the island “Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises…that give delight and hurt not…and then in dreaming the clouds methought would open and show riches…that when I waked I cried to dream again” (3.2 133-141). Caliban’s monologue about the wonders of island show him in a different light than previously seen. Especially so, when one remembers how he talked earlier about how the island was his and he existed in some kind of symbiotic relationship with the island. This speech creates sympathy for Caliban, and casts doubt about Prospero. Caliban seems to be an inherently peaceful creature that just wants to enjoy life on the island. From his view, Prospero has made his life so miserable that he would rather escape in his dreams than enjoy the wonders of the island that he once loved. While the audience already knows much about Caliban, and the fact that Shakespeare paired him with the comic relief characters, Stephano and Trinculo, should tell enough about his importance and trustworthiness, this speech is a ray of light in an otherwise dark existence. The final scene of the act three skews the difference between reality and fantasy, as well as fact and fiction. Prospero enacts his revenge on the lords, baiting them to a feast using spirits, then having Ariel deliver a speech for him in the form of a harpy while he watches invisibly. The speech is long, but one line stands out in particular. Ariel shouts “ You fools! I and my fellows are minsters of Fate” (3.3 60-61). Ariel is the one saying the speech, but it is in Prospero’s words. Therefore, Prospero is really the one who sees himself as the ‘minister of fate’. This sets up the final act of the play where Prospero tells everyone their fate. This returns yet again to Shakespeare siding with Prospero’s character, as Prospero uses duplicitous means to control others, but is not punished, but rewarded for it. In fact, the term ‘minister of fate’ is directly related to justice. What is a judge if not a ‘minister of fate’? Prospero decides the fate of everyone on the island, all according to his own whims.
In the final act of the play, Prospero finally confronts the lords face to face, with every character gathered in one spot. Having trapped them in a grove, Ariel states “That if you now beheld them, you affections would become tender” (5.1 16-17). Prospero replies to him “And mine shall” (5.1 20). This sets the audience up for Prospero’s final demonstration as a force of good. It is in this final scene where Shakespeare concludes about his sense of justice, with Prospero as his instrument. To quickly conclude Prospero’s long speech, he forgives everyone stating “ I do forgive thee, unnatural though thou art… the approaching tide will shortly fill the reasonable shore” (5.1 78-81). Additionally, he singles out Gonzalo as the lone virtuous soul of the group “My true preserver, and a loyal sir” (5.1 69). These two lines directly point to Shakespeare’s ideas on right and wrong, and therefore, justice. Gonzalo, whose utopian ideals and loyalty has been mocked throughout the play is immediately redeemed. Even though he is not a lord himself, Prospero (and Shakespeare) places him as the best of them all for his inherent qualities. More importantly, Shakespeare demonstrates that mercy is the highest form of justice. Prospero could have easily killed anyone on the island at any time, but he never did. Instead, he forces those who wronged him to confront their mistakes and restore what is rightfully his. This sense of peaceful justice has been reinforced many times throughout the play, and it is the final conclusion. Through Prospero, Shakespeare is able to demonstrate his own values and morals as not just a playwright, but as a human being.
Controlling information has been, is and will be, one of the most important factors in human interaction. Knowledge is is just as powerful as the sword, if not more so, and Shakespeare demonstrates that in The Tempest. Prospero’s and by extension, Shakespeare’s use of non-violence throughout the play culminate in to his final opinion on justice, being that mercy is the highest form of justice. Shakespeare demonstrates that violence will only lead to more issues through Antonio and Sebastien’s plot to kill Alonso. Prospero is able to control the narrative and therefore, demonstrate mercy. While his ambiguous, and occasionally malevolent actions and words throughout the play cast some doubt about the quality of his morals, Shakespeare concludes that the ends certainly justify the means. If an occasional lie or misleading statement can allow a peaceful conclusion to a situation as volatile as betraying your brother and exiling him to a desert island, then in Shakespeare’s mind, it is certainly worth it. In the epilogue, Prospero asks for the audience to clap for him if they agreed with his method; if Shakespeare could be watching from beyond the grave, he would be applauding the loudest.
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